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Science: A little reminder in your pocket: Apple's electronic assistant could revolutionise the way we live, putting the power of computers in everybody's hands, writes Steve Homer

APPLE's much-heralded Personal Digital Assistant will be launched today. MessagePad is the first of a series of futuristic products that Apple hopes will carry it into the next century. However, other companies are likely to give Apple a run for its money as this market heads in increasingly science fiction-like directions.

The pocket-sized MessagePad can convert handwritten notes into printed letters. Using a special pen, it is able to understand commands such as 'Call Juliette at 6pm', and at 6pm it will remind you to call by playing the dialling tones over its loudspeaker.

MessagePad will be available in the UK on 16 September, and will cost about pounds 600, including VAT. Over the next 18 months there is likely to be a flood of products and add-ons with even more impressive abilities.

The term Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) was coined by John Sculley, Apple's chairman, in January last year. PDAs are 'assistants', not just tools, and have artificial intelligence. If you tell your MessagePad that you are meeting someone for lunch, for example, it will know when you usually take lunch and check that the right time has been booked into your schedule. It will learn your preferences and help with decisions.

The MessagePad is Apple's first product to use its Newton PDA architecture. Newton is a combination of hardware and software tools that allow different devices to communicate with each other and allow owners to use them easily.

Newton also features a recognition scheme. In MessagePad, there is a handwriting-recognition scheme; this is Apple's own, but other manufacturers could write their own Newton-compliant handwriting recogniser. More importantly, a speech-

recognition system could be used instead - Apple has done a lot of work on speech recognition - or more than one recogniser could be installed.

Aspects of Newton will be built into telephones, multi-media players, personal communicators and office telephone exchanges, and could eventually be built into TV sets. Apple has demonstrated these sorts of abilities in work it has done with Siemens. The German company has developed a Newton phone that allows the MessagePad to slot neatly into the base unit.

Calls scheduled while out of the office can be automatically dialled, message services interrogated and faxes sent. The phone has full access to the database stored in MessagePad and can use many of MessagePad's abilities. However, the initial offering from Apple is missing many of the functions that will eventually make these pocket PDAs such exciting machines.

At the heart of PDA philosophy is communications. MessagePad can exchange data with other MessagePads by infra-red over a distance of about two metres. This means other people's details, files or update schedules can be exchanged. At launch, MessagePad will not have a built-in modem to connect it into the telephone system, to exchange data or to send and receive faxes.

Sadly, none of the exciting wireless technologies will be available at launch in the UK. In the US, a pager unit will be able to receive electronic messages, and soon a cellular system will be available for two-way communication. These will be available in the UK as soon as the relevant agreements can be reached. (Apple is negotiating with almost every telephone entity operating in the UK.)

But the real excitement could be digital wireless telephone technology, over which large amounts of data can be sent, either using digital cellular systems or more localised transmitters. One possibility is Hutchison's Rabbit system, which uses transmitters with a range of about 200 metres.

With localised services, a PDA could be asked for a cheap Chinese restaurant within five minutes' walk. This information could be stored on the telephone network, which would know which transmitter you were connected to and could quickly download recommendations, complete with maps. For this sort of service to take off, however, there would need to be sufficient PDAs speaking the same 'language' and an affordable telecom interface.

These are both major problems. Not only are there many different wireless telephone standards internationally, but Apple also has competitors with similar products and philosophies. Microsoft unveiled Microsoft at Work in June, which will allow many office-based devices to talk to each other over telephone and computer connection, a lucrative market for the Newton approach.

Apple is also beset with competitors on the pocket PDA front. First to market with a more basic device was Amstrad with its 300 Pen Pad. Sharp, which helped to develop MessagePad, with Apple, will also be on the market in September. Zoomer, developed by Casio and Tandy in the US, will be launched this October for about pounds 470. The two companies have lined up reasonable support on the communication front, and the product itself is quite good.

A potential threat for Apple in the corporate sector, where it expects most early sales, comes from EO, a US company in which AT&T has a majority shareholding. EO launched its EO 440 in April in the US and will launch in the UK shortly. It has an internal modem as an option and a cellular telephone add-on. Its major disadvantage is that it is more expensive - the basic model, without modem, costs pounds 1,350 - and it does not come with handwriting recognition or many intelligence abilities. But with AT&T's pedigree in communications and advanced technology, exciting opportunities are already appearing.

A lurking giant has also shown its interest in this area. Last year, IBM showed a PDA from its research lab. Essentially it was a pocket mobile phone with a fully functioning PC built in and a small touch-sensitive screen for input. IBM looked further into the future. It showed a mock-up of a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) unit that would slot into the machine. This would allow you to tell your PDA exactly where you were and, using this data, many different services would be available.

Digital maps of the area, details of films on at local cinemas, summoning emergency services and much more could be downloaded. This really did seem like science fiction. However, the US navigation technology company Trimble says it expects to have a fully operational GPS system, which will fit into the credit-card-sized slots that all these devices contain, by the end of this year.

PDAs, if they become an economic reality, could revolutionise our lives. With the advance in miniaturised electronics and communications, the future is wide open. What is more, as ease of use is such a driving force behind these technologies, the power of the computer could soon be put into everyone's hands.

Apple looks to the future, page 21

(Photograph omitted)