Home Computer: The shape of things to come: Roland Perry argues that personal digital assistants are still at the pioneering stage

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The Independent Online
ELECTRONIC organisers are extremely useful gadgets - a computerised version of familiar paper-based items, such as diaries, address books or memo pads. The latest organisers even have a pen that lets you scribble out maps, or point to a relevant name in the telephone book.

Add handwriting recognition and an overactive imagination to a pocket organiser and what do you have? - a personal digital assistant.

It is personal because it belongs to you; digital because all computers are; and an assistant because it promises to be more than the sum of the information it contains, adding much-hyped intelligence to combat drudgery.

But in their present form, they simply do not live up to their claims. PDAs are an interesting technology demonstration, but it is rather early days for them to be sold to the unsuspecting public.

Apple's Newton, for instance, claims to learn your working habits. But if you schedule lunch with Bob, it guesses the time as noon and asks you 'where?', even if you always meet him at 2pm in the pub. Nevertheless, just because the 'intelligent assistant' seems to have its brain in neutral, it does not mean that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the handwriting recognition system. It is great to play with, but not good enough to trust under pressure.

As luck would have it, the three different PDAs in circulation use three different schemes. Amstrad's PenPad sticks dogmatically to working letter by letter in a grid, while the Newton has a brave bash at deciphering joined-up writing with a pop-up keyboard to help when a word is not in its dictionary.

But sorting out ambiguities on the spot destroys the flow of live data entry. As compensation, you can choose to jot notes down freehand, but that takes up a great deal of valuable internal storage space and you cannot rerun the handwriting recognition on either PDA past them later on - to transfer that information into the address book, for example.

The Casio Zoomer, a newer model not yet in the shops, has a more flexible approach. While not allowing joined-up script, it does give you a second chance to rescan scribbles when the heat has died down. It even tacitly backs the widely held view that handwriting recognition is only suitable for small amounts of text, by providing an external keyboard socket.

The other great bluff in the world of PDAs is communications. Every system claims to come with a cable and software to connect it up to a desktop computer, but this simple kit seems never to be available when the product first goes on sale and is probably bought by relatively few people. This also means it is rare for people to take a back-up of the valuable data stored within their PDA, unless the habit of copying to a 'memory card' takes off more than it has so far.

It is also trendy to mention 'wire- less' data, with linkups via mobile telephones or pocket pagers. But down on earth, a more practical hurdle is getting support for a standard modem fitted into a standard slot. Electronic mail services to provide links to other users are only promises, too.

One day you will be able to use a pager to receive short messages, although today the only things in place are agreements with operators to think about supplying a service. And do not even think about connecting up via the new digital mobile telephone systems. The technical standards are well established, but the service providers are preoccupied with rolling out their voice service and will not even consider offering data until sometime next year.

So where does this leave the PDA as a potential object of desire? Most vendors privately admit that the real volume in the next year or two will not come from consumers, but from specialised form-filling applications in industry. The PDA is also irresistible to the gadget freak. But beware, if you become really attached to your organiser, accidentally losing it is like a death in the family.

Today, the PDA is truly what you buy is all you get. The Casio has by far the most comprehensive set of built-in organiser features, plus applications like personal finance, accounting and electronic versions of those useful tables at the back of your pocket diary.

Starting perhaps with an external fax modem, Apple expects users to more than double their initial investment buying hardware add-ons and software. They have announced a range of guidebooks to slot into the Newton, but there has to be a very compelling reason to spend pounds 70 on an electronic version of a pounds 7 paperback.

There is huge potential for the PDA. But that potential will not be realised for many years. The quite separate technologies of artificial intelligence, handwriting recognition, communications and above all manufacturing a powerful enough machine for a low enough price, have a lot of homework left to do.

In the mean time if you can afford it, buy one with your eyes open. It is fun being a pioneer.

Roland Perry designed the Amstrad PCW and is now a technology consultant.

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