Two companies that recently announced new computers weren't telling the usual dull tale of bits and bytes. Looked at historically, their machines actually represent a major departure in computer design, which could rekindle entrepreneurship in the industry.

Thinking Machines Corp. and Bolt Beranek & Newman Inc. each revealed plans for a computer that uses parallel processors. In the past, major innovations like this one have stimulated waves of start-ups: The integrated circuit made the minicomputer business possible; the microprocessor led to the personal computer industry. "There's a chance for a few Digital Equipments and Apple Computers to get started," says Daniel Hillis, co-founder of Thinking Machines.

Parallel processors are a radically new design. Computers have always used one processor, which works on one piece of data at a time, but at great speed. Parallel machines could be much faster because their thousands of processors work on data simultaneously.

Almost 60 universities are working on the computers, and a dozen companies are now building or marketing them. At least six models are expected in the next year. Most of the initial uses will be in defense-related fields.

The market could blossom quickly. "Researchers will develop uses for industry, and the community will come to understand that parallelism isn't as complicated as they feared," says Roy Coppinger, of Intel Scientific Computers, an Intel Corp. unit that is selling parallel machines. When that happens, opportunities for software development will abound. "That's where 90% of the work will go on," says Hillis.

The new companies are looking over their shoulders at -- of course -- IBM Corp., which is also developing a parallel processor. "The start-ups are going to force the large manufacturers to make changes," says Sidney Fernbach, a computer consultant in San Jose, Calif. "As soon as IBM decides to do it, it will dominate the market."

Where have we heard that before?