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MASSIVELY MESSY

It's crunch time at Thinking Machines Corp. The pioneering computer maker that brought "massively parallel" designs into the mainstream is engaged in a frantic race for survival. Now, with the possibility of a public offering squashed by continuing losses, the privately held company has put itself on the block.

Chief Executive Richard P. Fishman, a Washington lawyer recruited just 11 months ago to lead the Cambridge (Mass.) outfit, confirms that finding a partner "has a bearing on the survivability and viability of the company." The problem, according to Fishman: "We've had great difficulty making sales because people are concerned whether we'll be around." This year, revenues are expected to drop by 22%, to $70 million. Losses could hit $25 million.

The company's 450 employees are worried, too. In recent weeks, top software designers and salespeople have resigned. In mid-July, employees were unexpectedly paid for accrued vacation time and sales commissions--which some saw as evidence that the company is cleaning up its books for a sale.

WRONG TURNS. Why the crunch? The wealthy investors who have poured some $130 million into Thinking Machines since 1983 have balked at providing new money without a corporate partner. To avoid collapse, former executives and others say Thinking Machines has discussed an alliance--or an outright sale--with several companies, including IBM, Sun Microsystems, and AT&T. None of the companies would comment. Fishman, who replaced co-founder Sheryl Handler as CEO, confirms that he is "involved in negotiations with several parties right now" to bring in new money.

Thinking Machine's problems began in earnest three years ago. Even as it was selling equipment to a few big-name customers, including American Express Co. and Schlumberger Ltd., the computer maker missed a turn--by heading for increased scientific sales rather than focusing on commercial applications. The company got whacked when the cold war's end slowed sales of supercomputers and other gear. In 1991, Thinking Machines also missed its best chance to raise big money when Handler rejected the idea of doing a public offering. She figured the company could get a better deal if it waited.

Wall Street today views a public offering as anathema in the wake of market dives at such supercomputer makers as Convex Computer Corp. and Kendall Square Research Corp. Fishman's challenge now: to ensure that the pioneering company doesn't end up as simply another footnote in the history of the computer industry.Gary McWilliams in Boston


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