Hannover last week played host to Cebit, the world's largest computer and communications show, attracting an estimated 600,000 visitors. Cebit has long been the best European stage to see what gadgetry awaits. The good news is that the days of the MIAs may soon be over.
Computers have become so advanced that they are now starting to do the simple things most people want them to do in ways that ordinary people can understand. The buzzword at Cebit was multimedia - computers which do not just have boring old scrolling text and bar charts but added sound and vision.
While multimedia computing has been talked about for many years, its predominance at the show finally marked its breakthrough into the real world. The main reason is that people are at last finding ways to use the technology. The software - the programs in which the user is really interested - is at last being developed to make use of stereo sound and photographic quality visual images.
For instance, a company called Delorme has produced an electronic atlas, which offers not only the detail of any large-scale map of the world, but allows you to zoom in on detailed information about countries, regions and towns - even down to the level of street maps.
With many well-made games on show along with much well designed reference and educational material, the market does look ready to take off - almost. The key addition to multimedia computers is a CD-rom drive. These operate in much the same way as an audio CD player, but can read information specially encoded for computers at high speed and in high volumes. Each disc can store more than 450 times as much information as one ordinary floppy disk - enough to store the text of the Encyclopaedia Britannica twice over, or several short clips of moving images, which gives a new dimension to both games and reference works.
What has been missing up to now is a multimedia computer you can use straight out of the box. Up to now CD-rom drives have more often been an external addition to systems. There are systems on sale from specialist suppliers that do incorporate the CD drive in the front panel of the processor box, like the floppy disc drive, but they still usually lack the installed software that will allow the user to switch on and get the systems up and running.
At the low end, Amiga's CDTV and Philips CD-I systems, already widely available at under pounds 500, offer interactive information packs and games using the ordinary domestic television set as a monitor - but these are limited by the poor quality of sound and images, as well as restricted in what they can do by lack of processing power.
I only found two suitable ready-to-run multimedia computers on show at Cebit, but both are from suppliers well-represented in the high street, suggesting this new phase in computing is set to hit the market in a big way.
The best was from Tandy, which sells through its own chain of shops, and had lots of smart software installed. It will be launched in the UK towards the end of the year under the Grid or Victor brand. The trouble is that the software, although clever, is firmly aimed at the US market.
For example, as well as a CD-rom drive, the Tandy has an in-built modem allowing it to talk over the telephone network to other computers. But the software, though easy to use, is designed to gain access to information systems in the US such as America On-line, which offers everthing from weather maps to stock prices.
The Tandy also provides another example of where multimedia systems may be leading. By using the modem and the improved audio facilities of multimedia, the computer can act as an advanced digital answering machine, recording and storing voice messages in the same way as other computer information. If there are several people sharing a house, each can have their own 'voice mailbox' within the computer. Large companies, do this sort of thing already.
The other impressive machine at Cebit, was the IBM PS/1 Multimedia System, which is due to go on sale this month or next and will probably be available in stores like Dixons. Though the system is not as well-knitted together as the Tandy, the PS/1 includes a good tutorial, including television-like sequences to get even the most anxious novice up and running, and comes with a good selection of family packs of games and reference material.
If multimedia is making it easier to get information out of the computer, 'pen systems' are making it easier to put information in. The electronic pens can be used like a mouse to point and click on instructions displayed on the screen. But more exciting is the ability of pen systems to recognise writing, if for the moment only small amounts of clearly 'written' words.
All these new developments are coming together in the 'personal digital assistant'. Apple, which has made most of the running in terms of new computing ideas, unveiled its pocket-sized Newton, the first of this new class of devices, last year. Apple believes will take over much of the work now done on office and and portable computers and electronic organisers.
Apple's digital assistant will read joined up writing or cursive script - which brings artificial intelligence up to about national curriculum key stage 1. But Newton will do a lot more. It will communicate with other Newtons and personal computers, using infra-red beams similar to those used in television remote controls, allowing direct, cable-less transfer of, say, a contact number from a main desk-top system to a personal digital assistant.
At Cebit Apple showed a Newton office telephone. Here the Newton is simply slid into a groove alongside a handset and all calls can be originated there. Choosing a friend's or colleague's name from the digital assistant's directory would start Newton dialling the number. Calls can be prepared while you are travelling into the office on the bus and you can start your working day on the run. The Newton will also be able to send faxes.
Apple says Newton will be ready for launch this summer, but others have their eyes on the same market. Amstrad launched what its own digital assistant at Cebit. While more basic than Apple's, it is still pretty impressive. Casio, the calculator manufacturer, also tried to upset the Apple cart with Zoomer, developed in conjunction with Tandy. Sharp, another calculator manufacturer, has also upgraded its range, in conjunction with Philips, to the point where the IQ9000 also shares characteristics of a digital assistant, including infra-red communications.
Personal digital assistants have yet to prove their complex technology in practice, but could prove the real breakthrough in consumer computing. In 10 years handheld devices that can be used to store the shopping list and fax through orders, communicate with the video and even allow the washing machines to call us at work and ask if we want to start the wash cycle now, could be as commonplace as the telephone handset.
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