Wireless devices are all the rage The new offspring of PCs and phones


November 30, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

Of the hundreds of new products on display two weeks ag at the Comdex/Fall trade show in Las Vegas, some of the most intriguing were ones that cannot yet be bought.

Wireless communications widgets were everywhere, in various forms and in various stages of completion: on stage in elaborate product announcements, in hotel suites where the curtains were tightly drawn, in Plexiglas display cases on the show floor and even peeking from people's pockets in smoky bars.

The names for these devices varied widely, although "personal communicators" and "personal digital assistants" seemed to be the most popular. But in the end, what they really are is the offspring of personal computers and telephones.

Those on the father's side of the family view them as hand-held computers that use a pen-based operating system. Because they are primarily a computer, one will be able to work on data bases, spreadsheets and word processors, and probably also read books on it, play games and listen to miniature CD audio disks. And they also send and receive voice, facsimile and electronic mail messages by radio or cellular phone links.

On Ma Bell's side of the family, they are viewed as the next generation of phones, with the capability of data management.

Some form of handwriting recognition is usually present, allowing the user to keep notes, an appointment calendar, a telephone-address list and other personal data. But communication is clearly the key.

It is also clear that there will be many types of personal communicators. Although no one has pushed quite so far, the goal of some companies is to squeeze a powerful personal computer and a telephone together into a device that fits in a coat pocket, something like the communicator used in "Star Trek."

The sleek little Apple Newton prototype, with its almost sensuous curves, appears headed down that track, although Apple Computer Inc. says there will be many Newton variants.

At the other end of the scale, the IBM Personal Computer Co. showed a "technology demonstration" -- meaning it is not ready to make a product announcement -- of a notebook-sized unit designed to be cradled in one's arm.

Its sharp angles, which bring to mind the Stealth bomber, also allow the unit to be propped on the desk and attached to a keyboard, where it can be used as a desktop computer.

Somewhere in between in size are the tablet computers, smaller than a notebook and bigger than a palm top. The most advanced example of this type is the AT&T Personal Communicator 440, which was shown publicly for the first time last week. AT&T reported that it plans to have the Personal Communicator 440 in some of its Phone Center stores by early next year.

The 2.2-pound device looks like a tablet with Ross Perot ears. It measures (without the ears) 5.5 inches wide and 9.5 inches long, and less than an inch deep. It was developed by EO Inc., a small company in Mountain View, Calif., using a powerful new AT&T microprocessor called the Hobbit and a pen-based operating system called Penpoint, developed by the Go Corp. of Foster City, Calif.

AT&T says the Personal Communicator will cost $1,999 to $2,899.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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