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Designed for Even Mediocre Secretaries : Typewriter With Screen Displays a Demand

June 03, 1986|JAMES BATES | Times Staff Writer

Kurtin then went to Caltech and earned his doctorate in applied physics at age 26. At Caltech, Kurtin started developing the Lexitron word-processing system.

He started Lexitron with $3,000. Situated for most of its life in Chatsworth and later in Newbury Park, the company quickly became a leader in the word-processing business, but was chronically short of cash.

Many customers balked at the $20,000 price tag on Lexitron's product, so they leased the equipment instead of buying it. That, in turn, put financial strains on the company that forced it to look for a merger partner.

Raytheon, the giant defense contractor, bought Lexitron in 1977 for $14.7 million in what became a highly publicized flop. It later sold Lexitron and the rest of its data systems division in 1984 to Tulsa-based Telex.

Kurtin spent much of the year after the Lexitron sale skiing, but he became restless and started Lane Research, a Sherman Oaks product development firm.

At Lane, Kurtin developed his idea of making a typewriter with an attached screen that could duplicate the way text looks on a typed page, showing bold letters, centered lines and underlined words. It was to be an improvement on many personal computer and word-processing systems that display codes instead, often preventing users from spotting errors until the text is printed.

Protype's machine, first introduced in August, 1984, was greeted with raves from trade publications. Management Review, in a burst of hyperbole, went so far as to compare Kurtin to Thomas Edison. Lindsey of Dataquest agrees that the product was a "breakthrough" in the office equipment field.

Simplicity Lauded

Dealers and office equipment analysts praise the relative simplicity of Protype's product. They cited the easy installation, and say users need only one to two hours of training.

"There are no special codes to learn. Everything's in English," said Gary Weiss, assistant to the president of Advanced Image Systems in Glendale, one of Southern California's largest office equipment dealers.

A drawback to the Protype machine, however, is that users can't move as easily from page to page on a long document as they could on a word processor. Sources close to the company said Protype hopes to add that capacity to its machine later this year.

Kurtin brashly dismisses his competition, calling some of their machines "terrible products."

"We're talking about people who have compromised," he said.

Cynthia Karban, product manager for Olivetti, said she doesn't see much difference between Protype's product and Olivetti's "Videotyping" machine. She said Olivetti's equipment can perform tasks such as spreadsheet analysis that Protype's can't. But she also acknowledged that Protype's machine has some features that Olivetti's lacks, such as compatibility with IBM computer equipment.

Marketing Muscle

Dataquest's Lindsey said major companies such as Harris-Lanier, part of the Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., will be formidable competitors for Protype because of their marketing muscle. He suggested that Protype may respond by cutting deals with big firms to market and put their name on Protype machines.

Kurtin said his stiffest competition in the long run is likely to come from IBM, Xerox and Japanese manufacturers. IBM hasn't entered the field so far, probably, Kurtin said, because it isn't convinced the market is big enough.

In any case, Kurtin said, Protype is well financed and thus can withstand the competition. Backed by venture capitalists who eventually want to be paid off, Protype eventually will sell stock to the public or be acquired by a larger company, Kurtin said.

For now, Kurtin is content to run the company rather than return to the life of a ski bum he enjoyed after selling Lexitron. Confident that many businesses will want to replace their old electric and electronic typewriters with display typewriters, Kurtin predicts that the market could grow to 250,000 units, or $600 million, annually.

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