Let's hope General Magic learns from ABC

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 11/90 item 01 - scanned

If someone tried to sell you a book-sized computer with no keyboard, just a pen-sized stylus to operate it, what assumptions would you make? That it was useless because it didn't have any keys? Or would you guess the pen was to pick out letters from a keyboard displayed on the screen? Perhaps you'd think the manufacturer had cracked the problems of handwriting recognition.

These are the common assumptions about pen-driven computers, the machines General Magic (Apple's new subsidiary) and Go Corporation are developing. People believe that if they're computers then they must work just like their bigger brethren. The truth is, if pen-driven machines are to take off, computers are not the technology to emulate. General Magic and Go have powerful partners in Apple and IBM respectively, so each manufacturer has privileged access to years of fruitful research. With friends like this, it's no surprise these are the companies, along with Grid Computers (part of Tandy), who are tipped to come up with a working product. But there is a company much nearer to home launching a pen-driven product.

The man who founded Acorn Computers on less than £200 and took it to a £91 million company in five years (and, I have to add, down again to below £20 million), is at it again. Following Olivetti's buyout of Acorn, Hermann Hauser took control of his new company's research operations. He was responsible for eight laboratories scattered around the world, many of them in centres of hi-tech excellence, such as America's Silicon Valley. In the course of his work, Hauser gained great insight into the trends and opportunities offered by the rapidly changing world of electronics and computing.

When Hauser left Olivetti, he started a small company in Cambridge, England, dedicated to creating what he calls an 'Active Book'. For Hauser the word computer leads to expectations which cannot be fulfilled. More importantly, the word misses the point of his machine, which is that it is as easy to use as a book, albeit an electronic one. Hauser's Active Book is expected in early 1991, incorporating a microphone and the capability to send and receive faxes when connected to a telephone line. It might even contain its own cellular telephone which would link it to other computers and fax machines. Early versions will contain a floppy disk drive for more conventional information interchange with computers (oops, I nearly said other computers). Further plans include wireless communication with computers and the ability to link to a variety of networks, including Apple's. The Active Book targets the mobile businessman or woman, the kind of person who wouldn't be seen dead typing, so why should they need a keyboard?

What these busy people usually do is read material other people create. Then they annotate it or make comments about it and leave it to others to sort out the mess. Their lives revolve around their diaries. The Active Book contains a simulated diary, so all they need do is open it at the right page and scribble in appointments, just as they do with a paper diary. The computer doesn't even have to understand the scribble, as long as the user can. However, if the user writes fairly neatly, the Active Book can translate this into ASCII text.

Doling out £1200 for an electronic replacement for your Collins diary might sound a bit steep, so what else do you get for your money? You can link entries in the diary to any other information within the Active Book. So if you receive a fax relating to a particular meeting, you can link the two items. If the fax also relates to a report you're working on, you connect the report and the fax. Anything can be linked to anything, and this principle is central to the operation of the Active Book. Sound, text, graphics, animation and video are all acceptable data forms and each can connect to any other. If your secretary gives you a disc containing a speech you're preparing, you can add hand-written or spoken comments to it as you read through.

This is exactly how business users want to work. They couldn't give a damn about keyboards. They scribble, jot and brain-dump on whatever comes to hand. This is the key to unlocking a very successful device. At last you'll be able to browse around your life via the electronic connections and pathways which best reflect your interests. Hauser has introduced a whole new meaning to the expression 'personal computing'.

His device is almost irresistible. The human interface, a pen and paper, is used naturally throughout the developed world. If General Magic pursues the same course then Apple may find itself with a genuine follow-up to the Mac.