Special Report on Multimedia: Breathing new life into world of the desktop: George Cole finds that television and computer technologies are converging

MULTIMEDIA is transforming the desktop computer from a boring text-based machine into one which also displays sound, graphics, moving video images and animations. And some computers will soon offer video phones and speech recognition systems which respond to verbal commands.

'Multimedia will change the way many of us work, train, learn and entertain ourselves on a computer', said Graham Brown-Martin, chairman of Cambridge-based Electronic Sound and Pictures.

The first desktop machines displayed text on a green screen and users had to type commands on a keyboard. The launch of computers such as the Apple Macintosh changed everything with high quality graphics and an operating system which used on-screen pictures and a pointing device rather than typed commands.

Now, television and computer technologies are converging. The process began when companies began marketing video and sound boards which enable computers to link up to a VCR or video disc player and mix graphics and text with moving video images.

Other boards allow users to record and store sound and video images in a computer and manipulate them. With a suitably equipped computer, an executive can now record a verbal message and attach it to a spreadsheet or add video pictures to a word processed document. These multimedia presentations are known as 'desk top video'.

For a long time, users of IBM and compatible computers were in danger of being left behind in the multimedia revolution because the machines use the old and clumsy MS-DOS operating system. But the situation changed when Microsoft launched its Windows 3.0 system, which makes IBM computers work more like an Apple Macintosh. Last year, Microsoft introduced a multimedia extension for Windows and has now launched Windows 3.1, which has multimedia features built into it. Microsoft is also the founder of the Multimedia PC (MPC) consortium which includes Philips, NEC, Olivetti and Fujitsu. MPC defines a minimum standard for multimedia computers and various companies have launched MPC hardware, software and upgrade kits. IBM has launched its own range of Personal System 2 (PS/2) multimedia computers called Ultimedia, and last week announced three new Ultimedia models with improved graphics and features.

Apple does not like the term 'multimedia computer' and prefers to use 'media integration': 'We think multimedia should be a natural part of computing, rather than a bolt-on feature', said Pamela Shure, Apple UK's Product Markets Manager. Last year, Apple introduced QuickTime, an upgrade system which enables many Apple Macintosh computers to play and edit sound, video and animations. QuickTime is a software-based system, so users do not have to buy additional hardware to run it. Microsoft is set to launch a similar system for IBM-compatible machines known as Audio Video Interleave (AVI).

Multimedia is also changing the face of computer software and many programs are now being stored on CD-Roms rather than floppy discs. A CD-Rom can hold as much information as 1,000 floppy discs. For example, the multimedia version of Microsoft Works includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database and more than 40 sound and animation movies which help people understand how to use the software. Media Design Interactive's CD-Rom Dictionary of the Living World includes 2,500 text entries, 1,000 pictures, 100 animations and 100 video clips. The computer company Sun has replaced its bulky instruction manuals with CD-Roms.

Multimedia is also moving the video phone out of the science fiction novel and into the office. Olivetti and British Telecom recently announced the PCC - Personal Communications Computer. This combines a multimedia computer with a video camera and the digital telephone system called ISDN. PCC users will be able to conduct live video conversations, use a multimedia electronic mail service, send faxes, transfer files and even write messages with a light pen and electronic white board.

Olivetti has joined forces with Thomson to develop the PC-TV - a desktop computer with a built-in television tuner, teletext decoder and video recorder. The PCC and PC-TV are expected to be launched next year. Also on the horizon are portable multimedia computers - Apple and Toshiba are developing a hand-held multimedia machine with a built-in CD-Rom drive.

Computer companies are planning to launch multimedia machines we can talk to. Earlier this year, Microsoft took out a licence to use a speech recognition system developed by the American company Dragon Systems. The technology will be used in a Windows Sound System called Voice Pilot. This will allow users to create dozens of voice commands, including some which will tell a computer to open or save a file.