Fortune

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY/SPECIAL REPORT

July 11, 1994

FORTUNE CHECKS OUT 25 COOL COMPANIES

FOR PRODUCTS, IDEAS, AND INVESTMENTS

Norris Communications (1988)

Inventions

Poway, California

Sales: $8 million

Employees: 138

Eureka and gadzooks! At Norris Communications, good, old-fashioned, I'll-be-out-in-the-garage-Honey inventing is alive and well. That's because founder Elwood G. "Woody" Norris, 55, is a tinkerer who squirts out ideas the way a lawn sprinkler sprays water on a hot summer day.

His latest brainstorms include the EarPhone, which combines a speaker and a microphone in a peanut-size device. The microphone detects the voice of its wearer through vibrations of the bones of the skull but doesn't set off the screechy feedback that usually occurs when microphones and speakers are in close proximity. Apple Computer is using EarPhone in a hardware and software package that enables a Macintosh to dial phone calls, send faxes, and play voice mail.

Another creation, Flashback, is a palm-size voice recorder that works with no tapes and no moving parts. It incorporates flash memory chips--circuitry from Intel that, unlike ordinary random-access memory, doesn't forget everything when the power is turned off. Similar recorders are on the market, but they hold only a few minutes of conversation into a four-megabyte cassette slightly larger than a poker chip. Users can dump the data from the recorder into any computer that accepts PCMCIA cards, or transfer voice mail from a computer to Flashback. The device, with 30 minutes of memory, will cost about $200 when it hits the market in August.

Norris is a classic inventor: too busy and full of ideas to finish school, but smart as a whip. He spent 11 years at the University of Washington, studying engineering, philosophy, and business. He wanted business training because, he says, "inventors die poor." After he sold a device he called a "transcutaneous doppler" (an early version of sono-

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