SOMEWHERE around 3500 BC, an unknown Egyptian crisscrossed fibrous layers of a papyrus plant, dampened them, pressed them together, and created a new writing medium.
The invention was revolutionary. It not only put the clay-tablet industry out of business, it was the forerunner to paper, arguably man's most important invention.
Later this month, a small, oddly shaped computer will start appearing on store shelves around the United States. It's called Momenta, manufactured by a Mountain View, Calif., company by the same name. It has the potential to continue the paper revolution.
One sure sign of a new invention is that people struggle to give it a name. Momenta calls its machine a "pentop" computer, a cross between pen-based and desktop computers. Other terms include: "pen-centric computer" and "convertible pen computer."
But whatever it's called, the Momenta is really paper, a new form of the stuff called electronic paper.
"Pen computers will replace paper because they are a much better kind of paper," writes Portia Isaacson, who heads Dream Machine Inc., a computer publisher and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. "After using pen computers, we will never go back to paper that does not file itself, does not help us draw, does not do our arithmetic, does not recognize our handwriting, is not elastic, and cannot be effortlessly faxed to anyone in the world. [They] will be the paper of the 21st century."
Momenta, to be sure, is an early version of electronic paper, like papyrus in its day. Still, it is a more complete and higher-order machine than its predecessors, such as the specialized GRiD Pad from GRiD Systems in Fremont, Calif., and NCR's System 3125, introduced last summer. "It's the first of the real high-end [machines]," says Paul Zagaeski, a senior analyst at Yankee Group. "It's a piece of equipment with a real vision."
Flip up the screen of the Momenta and plug in its separate keyboard and it becomes a regular notebook-sized computer, able to run traditional personal-computer software. Flip down the screen and the Momenta becomes an inclined writing tablet, specially designed for writing comfort and ready to absorb what its creators call "electronic ink." Like all pen-based computers, an electronic stylus provides the main means of making Momenta work, whether it's drawing pictures or faxing a file over the phone. Running start
Momenta officials figure they have a lead of nine months to a year before other computermakers begin offering high-end pen-based machines. "Apple [Computer], I'm concerned about in 1993," says John Rizzo, Momenta's vice president of marketing. Other big names include: IBM, AT&T, and several large Asian corporations.
While it has the field to itself, Momenta hopes to sell a lot of machines. "Based on the back orders we have, it's looking really, really good," Mr. Rizzo says.
Many analysts are bullish on the technology.
Dataquest Inc. forecasts the worldwide market for pen-based computers will reach $13 billion in 1995. Another research firm, Lempesis Research, expects worldwide sales to top those of laptop and notebook computers by 1994. Ms. Isaacson of Dream Machine expects US sales of the machines to top 4.5 million units in 1995 and reach roughly 19 million by 1999.
Even Microsoft Corporation chairman Bill Gates predicts pen-based computers will take off rapidly in the marketplace. Microsoft and another company called Go Corporation are facing off in a duel to develop a standardized operating system for pen-based computers. Will executives bite?
The technology still has many skeptics. "It's a niche market," says Jim Martin, president and chief executive officer of Macworld Communications. "It could probably lift sales 10 to 15 percent over the next few years. For applications for insurance agents or bread-truck drivers, it makes a lot of sense. [But] I don't see business executives [and] sales executives getting away from the keyboard to go to the stylus. They went to the keyboard in the first place to escape writing things down."
Certainly the hype surrounding pen-based computing has died down a bit. A year ago, the industry was saddled with two popular misconceptions: (1) the most important technology to perfect was handwriting recognition and (2) that the pen-based computer would attract in a whole new segment of noncomputer users who were turned off by the traditional computer keyboard.
Neither is likely to occur, at least in the short term.
Handwriting recognition technology, for example, is still primitive. After wrestling with the problem for years, Go Corporation last year began to de-emphasize handwriting recognition. It figured that most users could read their own scrawl even if the computer couldn't. Momenta, too, has deemphasized handwriting recognition.
It's also unlikely that pen-based computing will attract masses of noncomputer users, analysts say. Momenta, for example, is trying to get buyers of notebook computers to consider buying the $4,995 Momenta - hardly a pitch to first-time users.
Another problem, says Mr. Zagaeski, is that writing on glass is different from writing on paper. "It isn't easy to be very precise with your handwriting."
Maybe we should try papyrus.