IBM evangelists conjure up an all-digital future: In 10 years one small hand-held unit may provide all personal computer needs. Susan Watts reports

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The Independent Online
REMEMBER when videos, Walkmans and computer games were novelties? Wind back to about January 1983 and you arrive in a world of relative technological naivety into which IBM's Personal Computer made its UK debut.

The computer giant has chosen this month's 10th anniversary to look forward to the next 10 years. In London yesterday, Paul Mugge, head of the Florida research laboratory that dreamt up the PC, sketched his vision of the first few years of the next millennium. Mr Mugge believes that by 2003, personal computing will have had as significant an effect on our lives as it has had over the past 10 years.

In slick 'TV evangelist' style, researchers conjured up a world in which you arrange meetings, book airline tickets, order bumf and converse with your family via one slim voice- and touch-sensitive terminal on your desk; where you carry a single pocket-sized intelligent personal 'computer' which doubles up as a portable telephone, accommodates electronic slot-in cards so you can brush up on your Chinese on the way to a meeting. You might also want to pick up a few video telephone calls, check the weather, listen to the news and keep tabs on the bills your children run up as they meet their friends at a 'virtual' electronic shopping centre and browse through the latest in sports shoes.

To some this will sound like a techno-nerd's fantasy, to others IBM is simply looking ahead to a time when personal computing, communications and consumer electronics finally meet the predictions and come together to bring us what should be the ultimate in electronic black boxes.

IBM has built a prototype, a touch-controlled box it calls the Personal Communicator, or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). This looks a bit like the earliest portable telephones and weighs about 16 ounces (453.6g). By autumn IBM expects to have made a few hundred even smaller models to hand out to valued customers. Limits on battery technology may hamper this, but the plan is to start mass marketing the small versions early next year.

The feature of the PDA that is most intriguing is a slot at the back that will take add-in cards in a new standard format agreed by several electronics and computer companies. One card could use the Global Positioning Satellite network - already in place and made famous in the Gulf war - to track the PDA's location.

The unit would then know its position and could call up maps and information on local attractions. Another add-in card could turn the PDA into a digital camera and send away the image data for processing, perhaps via an infra-red link to the local developer.

IBM is optimistically talking of 1995 as the year to look to for all this coming to fruition, but concedes that progress depends on the telecommunications companies putting in sufficient high- bandwidth data, satellite and cellular links. Europe has traditionally lagged a few years behind the US in this.

IBM is bold to look ahead. Just after the 18 January anniversary of its UK PC launch, it posted a dollars 5bn ( pounds 3.3bn) annual loss.

Yesterday, the UK director of the company's personal systems division boasted that 80 to 100 lorries full of PCs were still leaving the company's Greenock manufacturing plant in Scotland every day. Cynics wondered if IBM would be around to see if its vision would become reality.