The Computer For People Who Are Scared Of Keyboards

At IBM, they rarely even hint about products before they're unveiled. But Big Blue couldn't resist revealing in January that it's working on a tablet computer. IBM wants to make sure it isn't left behind as American and Japanese rivals tap into an explosive new market.

What's the big deal? A decade after the IBM PC made personal computers a huge business, Big Blue and the others sense another, possibly larger, market in the making. Why? By letting people "write" information directly on a computer screen with a special pen, rather than type it on a keyboard, tablets may finally deliver on the industry's pledge to make computers easy enough for anybody to use. "There is a whole market of people who've never touched a computer before," says James A. Cannavino, general manager of IBM's personal-systems group.

The prospect of a new computer craze--just as the desktop wave is cresting--has PC executives slaphappy about tablets. Just a year ago, Grid Systems Corp., a Tandy Corp. subsidiary, unveiled the first pen-and-tablet PC. But researcher BIS Strategic Decisions figures that so many PC makers are putting so much into tablets that sales will soar to $1.5 billion by 1995 (chart) and to $7 billion in 10 years.

A NATURAL. Early versions are usually the size of a fat spiral notebook and weigh about 4 1/2 pounds. Models due out within 12 months will use Intel Corp.'s 80386 chip and are expected to sell for around $5,000. They will recognize printed handwriting, transform it into letters on the screen, and store the data. That makes tablets a natural for anyone who fills out forms. Insurance adjusters are using them to write up estimates, cops are testing them for filing accident reports, and nurses at Kaiser