A smart invention that will log you on to life

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The Independent Online
NINETEEN hundred and ninety-nine will be the year of the digital Swiss Army knife - with gadget makers inventing products that combine two, three or four technological functions, writes Charles Arthur.

But analysts warn that being contactable everywhere, thanks to your combined mobile phone, pager and notebook, may not be desirable, and you could risk losing all your personal information at once.

However, the makers of the gizmos are not worried about that for now. Nokia, the Finnish phone manufacturer, has got into the market early with its Nokia 9000 combined mobile phone and handheld computer, which is able to send or receive faxes, and e-mail spreadsheets or documents written on the pocket-sized machine.

Not to be outdone, Motorola has developed a mobile phone which doubles - or perhaps triples - as a pager and speakerphone, despite weighing just 5oz. Computer makers such as Sony are putting miniature digital cameras into their super-slim laptops, while Nintendo has developed a Game Boy camera, which plugs into the handheld machines and captures digital images.

Why do people want them? "Some business users are carrying around a pager, cell phone, laptop - and in some cases a printer and alarm clock, too," explains Alison Crawford, a Nokia spokeswoman. "It becomes quite heavy - especially for a woman trying to carry a purse."

But while size and weight of the new devices might be preferable, their prices may not be. The Nokia 9000 starts at around pounds 600, while the Motorola combination will probably cost about pounds 300 once it is launched in the UK.

There is definitely demand for such products. "They are tremendous bargains," said Richard Doherty, of Envisioneering Group in New York, which tracks early technological trends. "These all-in-one devices are doing well with first-time buyers."

The evolution of such "smart packs", driven by the rising power and falling cost and size of microprocessor chips, will eat away at the dominance of now-separate items such as the phone, television and PC, suggests Tom Rhinelander, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Powerful, low-cost microprocessors, and connections via phone lines or wire-less technologies will be able to deliver a wide range of content," he said.

He predicts a revolution in "smart packs" in the next four years, with more and more fighting for our attention. But he warns that there may be drawbacks. "Having address books and calendars that are always up-to-date and can't be lost - say, because it's all held on a network which your smart pack calls up - will change interpersonal relationships."

And if your combined pager/ phone/ laptop/ camera was stolen, it would be a calamity beside which losing a Filofax would pale.