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Saturday, November 12, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A New Era For Personal Computers? -- Panda Project Promises Warmer, Fuzzier Experience

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

If this story sounds familiar, it should.

A small band of people huddle in hush-hush circumstances in a small lab in Boca Raton, Fla. Their secret mission? To introduce a personal computer that normal, technology-fearing people can use in their homes for work and play.

No, this isn't a rehash of how IBM and its "Dirty Dozen" created the PC that enswathed the planet in 1981. It's about a company called The Panda Project and how it expects to rescue the PC market with a machine that everyone wants but no one makes.

The Panda Project calls its PC the Archistrat, and the bulbous shape of its brain-box looks more like the work of Rodin than the square-edged, function-before-form effort of a lab grunt. But make no mistake: The Archistrat is more than just a pretty PC with green or terra cotta skin.

Slide down the front panel and you expose a floppy drive, hard drive, CD-ROM drive and tape backup stacked just like a stereo component system. Unscrew the back cover and you'll see a series of chip boards that anyone with a grade-school education can remove and replace.

"You can upgrade it yourself," said Athelene Gieseman, information systems director at Steel, Hector & Davis, a Miami law firm that has put two Archistrat prototypes to everyday use. "The chip doesn't sit right on the motherboard but on a card that you can just plug in and out. That's not even possible on other machines, and when it is, it's not very practical."

"It's as close as possible to being idiot-proof," said Jim Wooder, a vice president with Helix Investments, a Toronto venture capital firm that owns 9 percent of The Panda Project's outstanding shares.

Running the show at The Panda Project is Stanford Crane Jr.

Crane, 43, spent four years each at AMP Inc. and Molex Corp., two well-known players in the PC components market, then founded his own company, Crane Electronics, in Ohio. That company declared bankruptcy in 1986. One month later, so did he.

Crane's past insolvencies don't seem to faze anyone. In May, the project went public with a stock offering that raised $10 million. Its auditor is the upright Price Waterhouse, and its law firm the juggernaut Steel Hector & Davis, which had enough faith in its client to take 20,501 shares of stock in lieu of cash for its advice.

The offices contain a medley of 27 people from companies such as IBM, Exxon, 3M, Conner Peripherals and Mitel. Director Joe Sarubbi, one of the original Dirty Dozen, gives the company an aura of accomplishment and potential.

But after all the fanfare given to Steven Jobs' NeXT - a nice computer that bombed in the market - the world is more leery of overnight sensations. Crane aims to avoid Jobs' mistakes.

"We are exactly the opposite of NeXT," Crane said. "NeXT had a proprietary operating system which nobody wanted. Our whole platform is meant to run any operating system and any processor. This gives people a backward path to anything they've invested in, but also the ability to adapt to the future."

At the heart of the Archistrat is a semiconductor package that is 70 percent smaller than the usual square-shaped, pin-legged "quad flat packs" that form microchips, memory chips and video chips in a PC. Smaller chips mean smaller and faster machines. Crane hesitates to name names, but Cirrus Logic, a leading maker of video chips, is hot for The Panda Project's chip packs.

"We believe that a variety of Cirrus Logic's chips could incorporate various aspects of Panda's technologies over the next two years," wrote George Alexy, Cirrus Logic's senior vice president of corporate marketing, in a letter to Crane. "Conceivably, within three to five years, a majority of our chips could exploit these advantages."

Crane has his eye on a PC and server market that consumed 10.2 billion quad flat packs in 1993 and is expected to require 21 billion in 1997, according to Electronic Trends magazine. A 1 percent piece of the market, Crane figures conservatively, would be worth about $150 million in revenue come 1997.

If all goes as planned, Panda will launch both its chip package and the Archistrat by April. IBM's Manufacturing Technology Center in Boca Raton is developing the automated machinery to mass-produce the chip packs. Christopher Fleck, the center's business development manager, said IBM has its eye on the project.

"It's a solution for a lot of the industry that's looking for low-cost, high-pin-count chip packaging," Fleck said. "We see a lot of potential in their technology."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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