Computer Makers Run To Catch The `Bus'

Portable computers free people to crunch numbers and write reports anywhere--from an airport lobby to a sun-drenched Maui beach. But unlike desktop computers, they keep their owners tied to one brand. Why? Because most makers of portable computers have created their own standards for adding such options as additional memory chips, bigger disk drives, or faster modems. So instead of shopping around for add-ons, portable-PC owners must buy from the company that made the computer--and pay a stiff price.

But the industry is starting to loosen the shackles. Nearly 250 makers of computers, memory chips, and related gear, including IBM, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, and NEC, have united behind a standard slot, or "bus," for connecting add-on gear to portables. Like the standard bus for desktop PCs, this one is "public," meaning that companies all over the world--from tiny startups to mighty IBM--can create devices to plug into it. As with PCs, that should create a highly competitive market for low-cost, innovative add-ons.

WRINKLES. Known by the jawbreaking acronym PCMCIA, after the industry group backing it (the Personal Computer Memory Card International Assn.), the standard spells out the specifications for the bus and the interchangeable plastic-coated cards that fit into it. The cards, each the size of a stack of four to six credit cards, contain tiny printed circuits and semiconductors. When inserted into a slot on the side of a computer, they can boost memory, provide networking capabilities, or, with a phone cord attached, act as a modem. Mini-Stor Peripherals Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are even offering miniature hard-disk drives on PCMCIA cards.

The new standard is expected to start sweeping the market this fall. At least 50 products sporting the PCMCIA logo will be on display this November at Comdex, the industry's annual confab in Las Vegas. Even with some wrinkles still to be ironed out on the software front, consultant Dream IT Inc. expects there to be 1.1 million PCMCIA computers in consumers' hands by 1993 and 9.2 million by 1996.

Why so much interest in a little metal connector? Besides creating a multibillion-dollar industry for portable-computer add-ons, PCMCIA could create a standard for exchanging data among all sorts of portable devices--from electronic books to "personal digital assistants" that combine an electronic notepad and wireless phone. In turn, predicts AP Research in Cupertino, Calif., PCMCIA card sales could grow from 400,000 this year to 10 million in 1995.

But the industry's growth depends on software standards that make the cards truly interchangeable--a state of grace not yet reached. One important holdout is Compaq Computer Corp., which for now is sticking with its own, incompatible slot. "Yes, we are working on PCMCIA," says Compaq President Eckhard Pfeiffer. "But to what extent it will become standard remains to be seen."

TRICKY SOFTWARE. That's a good point. In late September, PCMCIA members are expected to O. K. key standards for most machines, especially IBM-compatible portables. But it may be at least 1993 before the IBM PC cards also work on Apple Computer Inc. machines such as the PowerBook, because the Apple software is much trickier. Communications requirements, for example, are completely different in a PowerBook than in an IBM-standard laptop.

Still, some makers of portable gear are lunging in despite the uncertainty. Dell Computer Corp. introduced a 3 1/2-pound notebook PC just over an inch thick, including an optional disk drive, partly because the PCMCIA slot ended the need for internal communications gear. IBM, Toshiba, NEC, AST Research, NCR, and others should follow suit at Comdex.

Startups and veterans are jumping in with cards for all sorts of functions (table). Since late 1991, SunDisk Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., sold $12 million worth of flash-memory cards, which use special chips to retain data even when the computer's power is off. Intel sells flash-memory and modem cards. And IBM has three prototype network cards it plans on selling to other computer makers. IBM hasn't yet announced its PCMCIA portable.

The most intriguing use for the cards is still on the horizon. PCMCIA members hope to agree next year on standards for a microprocessor card. The upshot: In a few years, a computer's brains might fit in a wallet. To trade up to a more powerful machine, all you'd need is a new microprocessor card. With memory and peripherals also on cards, a PC might be just a bare-bones box with a screen and a keyboard. "In a sense, these cards could become the computer," says AP Research President Andrew M. Prophet. So, cardmakers could hit the jackpot--if they play their hand right.