All the information you need, when you need it

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 03/92 item 02 - scanned

Apple, trendy as ever, published its annual report on recycled paper this year. Not the recycled stuff that looks like low-grade ordinary paper. This had conspicuous flecks and spots of colour in, so you could be in no doubt of its origin. As you know, I applaud anything which helps preserve this planet, but I just hope it's not being turned into a marketing gimmick, no matter how pure the motives.

Still, that wasn't the most interesting part of the report. Apple currently has a legal action pending because of an allegation of misleading statements in the early part of last year about its business prospects and outlook for growth in earnings. Because of this, I suspect this report is as scrupulously honest as it possibly can be, without giving away too much commercially sensitive information.

The most interesting part of the report concerns Apple's ambitions in multimedia and personal information systems. It is "working on future products which will let people play and quickly search through digital media. These products have the potential for a wide variety of uses in education, home and even business settings as tools for learning and entertainment." Note the use of the word "even" before "business". Perhaps Apple is seriously thinking of becoming a Nintendo-basher. Perhaps its close friend Sony fancies a bit of that market and sees Apple as a good delivery mechanism. And perhaps Apple is happy to do this, because it throws competitors off the scent regarding its business ambitions for these devices.

The personal information products are described as "small pen-based and handheld communications devices. The pen is a fast and fluid tool for taking notes, drawings, sketches, and recording ideas. Small, handheld devices that combine computer and telecommunications technology will let people work together and communicate in unprecedented ways." Apple then goes on to say that it is "about to change the world - again". Hmmmm.

We're familiar with the idea of pens and handheld machines, but what about the communications technology bit? Perhaps this means hooking up to the telephone system. Or maybe it means using the cellular networks, something Motorola knows plenty about. Perhaps, in the wake of the IBM/Apple agreement, Motorola was kept sweet by not only getting the rights to manufacture the new processors, but also by the prospect of some meaty communications business.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps Apple will create games machines for use in the home. My guess is that Apple's role will be to provide some of the technology - QuickTime perhaps - and badge machines manufactured by someone like Sony. Its education products could be CD-ROM players with pen-activated searches and the means of saving information or printing it to external devices. Typically, the CDs would contain encyclopaedias and other reference works. As real-time decompression improves, video would be a practical option too.

I see the greatest application variety in business. Take anyone who works on the move. A minority tote general-purpose notebook computers which weigh at least six pounds. They are the brave souls who have bothered to learn about computers. What about the millions more who are scared stiff of these machines? Wouldn't it make sense to give them a device which simply satisfies their needs and no more?

I'm no doctor, but I've seen doctors in action. I've also seen what can go wrong when they start mixing drugs. It is unreasonable to expect them to remember details of every drug, its side effects and problems when used with other drugs. Why not store all this information in a purpose-built device? Another file could contain details of all possible illnesses and their symptoms. This way, the doctor can have equal access to both common and rare conditions. As a way of improving their bedside effectiveness, access to these files would be invaluable. And then, how about plugging into the surgery network just before going off on the rounds and picking up the full medical history of every patient on the schedule? If the device contained a cellular modem, the surgery could easily add new appointments and patient details while the doctor was out.

Sales people out on the road could have a system which contains details of the company's products and, perhaps, multimedia sales presentations. Like the doctor, the salesman could hoover up details of the days' clients. Neither the salesman nor the doctor would need anything more sophisticated than a stylus to operate the machine.

I'm sure Apple has thought of more exciting applications, but this is where the real revolution will happen.