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'Spelling Ace' Rewrites Firm's Future : Phonetic Device Puts Franklin on Road to Profit

January 19, 1988|Associated Press

PENNSAUKEN, N.J. — A computer company in bankruptcy proceedings just three years ago knows the sound of suk-ses' and has developed a hand-held computer that spells it s-u-c-c-e-s-s.

Franklin Computer Corp., where life wasn't so rosy three years ago as officials sold assets to pay creditors, said the Spelling Ace computer and three related products were so popular this past holiday season that it stopped taking orders from retailers and postponed an advertising campaign.

"This is sort of the Cabbage Patch of 1987. We haven't been able to build them fast enough," executive vice president Michael R. Strange said during an interview at Franklin's cramped and crowded domestic headquarters.

The Spelling Ace provides phonetic spelling for 80,000 words from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, including proper names, hyphenation and abbreviations. Users wary of a word's spelling can type the way its sounds onto the keyboard, then wait for the correct spelling to appear on the screen.

For instance, if someone is looking for the correct way to write words that sound like \o7 lengwistik\f7 or \o7 teknolojee\f7 , they'd type them into the eight-ounce Spelling Ace just as they are pronounced.

Within seconds--or as Strange put it, "Bing-bang-boom"--the words linguistic and technology appear on the screen correctly spelled.

Spelling Ace also offers basic word puzzle games, as does Word Wiz, which is designed for children. Both retail for around $69.95. The $99 Spellmaster has more advanced word games, including anagrams and jumbles.

Sears Surprised

The $299 Language Master has an 80,000-word dictionary that spells and defines words, plus a built-in thesaurus for 35,000 words.

The tiny computers made quite a splash with catalogue and retail sales in several regions for Sears, Roebuck & Co., but Sears spokesman Michael Mangan said he wouldn't go so far as to compare Spelling Ace's popularity with the Cabbage Patch dolls of several years ago.

"We were quite surprised. It was a sellout," Mangan said in a telephone interview from Sears' corporate offices in Chicago. Sears plans to spotlight the line in its back-to-school catalogue next fall, he said.

"These were the first generation, and obviously there was an interest in them," Mangan said.

The 7-year-old company, which also manufactures personal computers, decided in October to postpone its advertising for the Spelling Ace because demand was so high.

Franklin says it made more than $1 million in its third quarter ended Dec. 31. It is on the way to its first profitable fiscal year since 1983, when the company was flying high as a maker of personal computers compatible with those of Apple Computer Inc.

Apple dealt the company a near-fatal blow in 1984 when it won a round in a landmark lawsuit charging Franklin with illegally copying its operating system, which controls the computer's inner workings.

Franklin agreed to come up with its own operating system, which it did, but sales of the new computers were less successful. Although the company has been out of Chapter 11 protection since February, 1985, it continued to fluctuate between quarterly gains and losses.

Franklin President Morton E. David challenged his staff to develop a way not just to sell a computer to a household but to sell several computers to that same household.

"We were like missionaries. We pioneered it. There was no other product like this," Strange said.

About 60 people employed at the Pennsauken facility met the challenge. The Spelling Ace was introduced in December, 1986.

Franklin estimates that it earned more than $1 million on sales of more than $15 million in its just-concluded third quarter, contrasted with a loss of $2.7 million on sales of $8 million a year earlier.

"Everybody here is excited. The employees have been working very hard. Everybody deserves credit for hanging in after some very bad times we had there," said Gregory J. Winsky, vice president for administration and general counsel.

Line to Expand

Franklin also has an additional 30 employees at a plant in Westbury, N.Y., and offices in New York, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul. The machines are madein the Far East and distributed through the Pennsauken building.

Strange said Franklin Computer plans to expand the line to include pocket-sized electronic devices by next summer, Strange said. It has also developed a Queen's English spelling device for customers in Great Britain, Australia and Hong Kong.

Strange said the company has received inquiries from school systems about the spelling aides as well as letters from parents who say the devices have been a great help to their dyslexic children.

Electronic devices such as the Spelling Ace can be used to refine a student's reading and writing skills but cannot actually teach those skills to youngsters, said Miriam T. Chaplin, an associate professor of education at the Camden campus of Rutgers University.

"The student has to be taught the skills first. If the skills have been mastered, then this type of reinforcement is in order," said Chaplin, a reading specialist.

Like a computer, the spelling device can't act as a substitute teacher, she said.

While the devices can be adapted to any volume of reference material, Strange said the dictionary functions are its strongest. "We've barely scratched the surface," he said. "It is very practical."

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