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Britain hopes Apricot computer will blossom in the US market

In the personal computer realm the current wisdom is that it is an IBM and Apple world. There is IBM and its host of work-alikes. Then there is Apple, the major holdout against the ''IBM standard.'' It is the consensus that there is simply not room in the overcrowded market for another, distinct personal computer (PC).

Those passing out this popular opinion generally add a caveat: the Japanese. But, while US microcomputer industry watchers keep a weather eye peeled on Asia, the premier computer maker in the United Kingdom has launched a low-key invasion from the opposite direction.

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In the last two weeks, Applied Computer Technologies (ACT) founded a US company, Apricot Inc. and bankrolled it with $20 million to begin selling its Apricot line of personal computers here.

Last year, ACT introduced its sleek line of computers in the US. At the time, the Apricot, with its distinctive design and unique features prompted generally positive comments in the computer trade press, but it was generally dismissed as a curiousity. In the intervening year the British company familiarized itself with the American market, explains ACT director Chris Buckham.

The catalyst for the company's decision to try to crack the large US computer market - it makes up 70 percent of the world market - was an agreement with the North American Manufacturers' Representatives Association (NAMRA), a group of well-connected computer sales representatives fired by Apple when the company set up its own direct-sales force.

The company has no intention of battling IBM and Apple for the mass US market. Instead, they intend to carve out a niche similar to that which Bang & Olufsen has established in the stereo market: providing aesthetically styled machines with some unique features for a bit more money, explains Robert Coolidge, new president of Apricot Inc.

The new organization has set modest goals for itself, Mr. Coolidge explains. In the first year, it will be satisfied if it sells 15,000 units (one-half a percent of the total US? market). In their second year, it hopes to move 30,000, growing to 50,000 unit sales in the third year. If it is successful, by the end of the third year Apricot will be a $150 million-a-year concern.

The company's computers certainly are stylish enough to distinguish them from the horde of boxy, IBM look-alikes. They are much smaller than the run-of-mill American box. Keyboards are large, low profile and well laid out.

In addition to the European look, they sport some unique features. Like IBM's PC Jr., the keyboards are all cordless. They communicate with the computer using infrared light.

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ACT has also developed a graphics-based user interface reminiscent of that used by Apple's Macintosh. Movement of the cursor on the display screen can be controlled either with arrow keys or with a mouse, a small box that moves the cursor when it slides around the desk top. Unlike the Macintosh mouse, Apricot's mouse does not have a cord but an infrared link.

The company's newest machine, a 13-pound portable, can be trained to respond to a limited number of spoken commands.

Beneath these glamour-features, however, the heart of the machine, its central processing unit, is from the same Intel family as that in the IBM PC. With the clout that comes from controlling 36 percent of the UK market, ACT says it has worked with the major American software publishing houses to tailor 14 of the top 20 best-selling business programs to run on its machines.

The current Apricot line consists of four different machines.

The F1 is its entry level machine and is priced at $1,695. This includes the computer, a 3.5-inch disk drive, infrared keyboard and mouse, and color-graphics capability. It also comes with word processing and electronic spreadsheet software. Monochrome or color monitors cost from $300 to $600 extra.

The portable has the same basic features as the F1, but also includes a flat, liquid crystal display screen and the voice recognition feature. It is priced at

The original Apricot PC adds a second 3.5-inch drive and the ''xi'' model incorporates a 10 million-character hard drive for mass storage. Less monitor, the two will retail for $2,695 and $3,895 respectively.

With its $10 million advertising budget for the first year, Apricot Inc. wants to establish itself as a classy alternative to IBM and Apple.

''What's wrong with owning a BMW dealership?'' quips Marvin Grossman, an Apricot sales representative.

There is one precedent for such an approach: Hewlett Packard. With its reputation for high quality and touch-screen technology, HP appears to be doing well.

Skeptics are rampant: ''What the Beef Eaters like won't necessarily go over well here in the US,'' comments one software developer.

''We intend to prove the conventional wisdom wrong,'' responds Coolidge.

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