Special Report on Multimedia: Apple sets its sights on the 21st century: Susan Watts finds that sections of the computer industry believe a revolution is on the horizon and that it will open up a new mass market

NOWADAYS it is hard to tell computer, electronics and entertainments companies apart. They have all focused their minds on the same thing - the gadgets and devices they think people will believe they need in a few years time.

These boxes, the gurus tell us, will incorporate features from all three sectors - bringing digital technology, communications and leisure together in the all-singing, all-dancing gizmo for the 21st century. Apple Computer is perhaps the most active of all. John Sculley, Apple's chairman and chief executive officer, is the self-styled champion of those in the computer industry who believe a revolution is on the horizon - thanks to advances in miniaturisation, data storage and communications.

Apple is out to grab a chunk of what it sees as a new mass market. The company yearns to become a consumer electronics company, and has set up a new division - Apple PIE (Personal Interactive Electronics) - to handle its new products and change of direction.

Mr Sculley reckons the best way to achieve his goal is to collaborate with larger, international companies with the money to invest in development projects.

The first in what Apple promises will be a range of consumer electronics products should be available next year. This is the Newton - a device the size of a paperback book which behaves like a combination of a personal organiser and a small computer. All eyes are on this tiny computer because Apple shook up the personal computer industry once before. In the early 1980s it was the first to use graphic icons of rubbish bins and filing cabinets instead of the usual list of coded options on the computer screen. In one move, Apple made computing easier for thousands of people. The Newton can hook into other larger computers, and send faxes through wireless communications links. Apple recently recruited several satellite companies to its cause. These will deliver electronic mail or stock quotes to a Newton almost anywhere in the developed world.

Another distinguishing feature is that you communicate with the Newton by using a stylus 'pen' and simple, block handwriting rather than a keyboard. The Newton will accept add-on cards that bring vast amounts of data such as encyclopaedias and city guides.

Apple's new family of consumer-oriented devices are called Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). What is supposed to set these hand-held apart from today's personal computers is that they are designed to 'learn' the quirks and preferences of their owners. Thus, the Newton will gradually get the message that 'lunch, tues with Joe' scrawled on its screen means you want it to record a 12.30pm appointment on the following tuesday with Joe Bloggs at his offices in Bloomsbury.

The first batch of PDAs will probably be too expensive for 'ordinary people', but are expected to be lapped up by business executives. Future models, however, will be aimed at consumers for use at home or anywhere outside an office.

Apple is said to be developing the second PDA in its range, Sweet Pea, jointly with Toshiba. This is thought to incorporate some of the features of CD-I (CD Interactive), Philips' interactive multimedia system. Mr Sculley has already committed himself to this market area with the promise that from next year all Apple computers will come with a CD-ROM player built in. Sweet Pea is expected to use compact discs to store data, text, sound and video information that can be played back in a variety of combinations.

Early this year, Apple announced that it had developed a computer system that uses standard chip technology, and will respond to commands given in continuous speech. At the time, this system had a limited vocabulary of only 300 words, but could recognise any voice. The idea is that Apple will incorporate this system into its PDAs, adding yet another communications dimension. Mr Sculley does not, however, give a definite timetable for this.