Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 02/93 - scanned

EO PERSONAL COMMUNICATOR

How would you like an A4 sized magic box which contains all the information you'll ever need and lets you keep in touch with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time? Sounds interesting? Well, it exists. Or at least, the beta version does.

The Personal Communicator from EO is the first of a new breed of devices which acknowledge that access to information and other people is at the heart of what we do. You can scribble notes to yourself, translate them into computer text, store drawings, exchange faxes, electronic mail, voice mail and computer files, and manage your life. It's a personal messaging device and computer rolled into one which gives you the freedom to work where you like, when you like, without losing contact with your customers and colleagues.

Thanks to a free subscription to AT&T EasyLink Services, your contacts need dial only one number, regardless or whether they want to send you a fax, electronic mail or voice mail. Next time you're in range of the cellphone system or you plug into a wall socket, all your messages are transferred to you and any that you've prepared are sent to their destinations. As a user, you don't have to worry about how this happens; it just does.

As well as using AT&T EasyLink Services, you can initiate access to any computer, network or information service in the world. All the world's information is available to you, provided you're prepared to pay for it and you have the authority to access it. Your freedom will be bounded only by the communications devices you attach and the number of spare batteries you carry with you.

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES

EO has announced two models, the 440 and the more fully featured 880. Both have what can best be described as ears sticking out at each side, containing a number of connections to the outside world, plus a loudspeaker on one side and a microphone on the other. Although they make the computers distinctive, they also make them an inconvenient shape for packaging in a briefcase. But for the show-offs among us, the top of each ear has a shoulder strap attachment.

The two devices have much in common, despite their differences in size and weight. Each has 640 x 480 pixel display although it is crisper on the smaller 440. On the other hand, the 880 has a backlit display. Each computer can accommodate a hard disk but the 440 uses a 20mb drive as opposed to the 880's 64Mb.

Both models have a serial port, cable and software for connecting to a PC. A parallel port connects to a printer or an external 1.44Mb floppy disk drive. They can incorporate an internal 14.4bps modem and a cellular phone unit. A PC keyboard and additional memory up to 12Mb can be plugged in. The Personal Communicators run the PenPoint operating system and nine applications directly from the 8Mb ROM, leaving the main memory free for data. The rechargeable battery has a quoted active life of up to four hours with a rechargeable time of 90 minutes. An optional extended life battery pack for the 440 extends its life to seven hours.

The 880 has the edge in a number of areas. It can accommodate two PCMCIA cards rather than the one on the 440. One of these might be used for connection to a LAN. There is a VGA connector for an external display, although no-one is likely to use the EO for presentations when using it as a true personal communicator. It also has a SCSI 11 port for adding external hard disk drives.

The 880's processor runs at 30MHz instead of the 20MHz of its junior sibling. According to EO, the 440 delivers two to three times the performance of a 20 MHz Intel 386SL while the 880 is comparable to a 33MHz Intel 486SX processor.

The user's experience of the Personal Communicator is more or less restricted to the pen, the screen and the software; hardware connections tend to be forgotten once they have been set up. The pen is a free-standing item rather like a ball pen, with what looks like a white plastic nib which retracts into its body when pressed. This causes a coil mounted in the pen body to move towards a tight array of sensing coils just under the surface of the LCD.

The screen on the prototype was made of plastic, which flexed when pressed and made the display go patchy. The production models will be made of toughened glass with a textured surface, to simulate the feel of pen on paper.

To save accesssing menus continually, PenPoint and its applications understand a number of pen gestures. If you wanted to check the spelling of a document you'd simply write a letter S on the screen, while if you wanted to open a writing pad you'd draw a caret (an omission mark). A whole series of squiggles, lines and taps enables you to navigate and amend EO documents at speed. most of the gestures have a logical foundation, so they are pretty easy to learn, and the majority also have a menu equivalent.

PenPoint treats the Personal Communicator like a notebook. The opening screen shows a table of contents comprising expandable sections, and document page numbers are given with each entry. Sections can be turned to by icon, page number, or a tab on the right-hand edge of the page.

A menu bar at the top shows the options available, while a set of icons at the foot of the screen gives you a choice of other notebooks and accessories. Help information is stored in its own notebook, as are preference settings and stationery templates. Accessories include a software keyboard which can be displayed on the screen for rapid input, using your pen instead of your fingers. Faxes and incoming mail are stored in an Inbox and everything ready to go is stored in an Outbox.

Documents within EO are connected by a hidden web of hypertext links. They can be embedded in or joined to other documents. If a document exceeds the size of the screen or its current window, scroll bars appear. In fact, all resizing, positioning, hiding and scrolling activities are similar to those in other windowed environments. A *cork margin at the foot of the screen allows you to place buttons which take you directly to related documents.

You may write and draw on the screen and whatever you do will be captured as a bitmap image. (The Personal Communicator makes no attempt to translate your work into ASCII unless specifically asked.) Then you can either point it to an area of text and ask it to do its best, or call up a special input form into which you print individual letters in separate boxes. The software keyboard would probably offer you a quicker and more accurate result.

The Personal Communicator uses GO Mail, GO Fax, EO Phone, EO Sound, EO Calc, EO Lock, GO MiniNotes, Sitka PenTOPS and PenCentral, and Pensoft Perspective. GO Mail presents the user with a simple user interface, but behind the scenes it can connect to a variety of messaging networks. It protects the user from the usual complexities of sending messages to different systems.

GO Fax allows users to exchange Group 3 faxes with any compatible device in the world. The free subscription to AT&T Mail which, in turn, includes gateways to all the major mail services such as CompuServe, Internet, MCIMail. Novell MHS and cc:Mail. GO Corporation and AT&T are both planning to provide store and forward fax services, bulletin boards, access to publication databases, electronic software distribution and support for business transactions.

EO Phone, as its name suggests, connects to the cellular or external telephone system. Its dialling facilities are used by other applications in order to complete their connections. When you arrive at a new location, you give EO Phone the details and the dialling codes are altered accordingly.

EO Sound allows you to record and play back sound documents, which can be used to annotate any other document except a fax. Instead of writing a complicated cover sheet to be sent with a bar chart, you could attach a voice note instead. If you don't mind losing a little sound quality. the note can be compressed to 50% or 33% of its original size. A ten second sound recording would occupy 30K unless compressed.

EO Calc is a simulated paper calculator except that you write the numbers with the stylus. Just like in your school days, you write one number, then the other, and then the operation. Different paper types like arithmetic and scientific are used according to the sophistication of your calculations.

EO Lock prevents unauthorised users getting at the contents of your Personal Communicator. A password protection can be timed to come on a certain time after the machine has been switched to standby.

GO MiniNote is a simple notetaker which captures a bitmap of whatever is written or drawn on the machine. It is useful for sending as part of a fax or as a file attachment to electronic mail. The Personal Communicator help system is built around MiniNote. If you call up a help screen, a copy of the original is made so that you can write on it and try out the advice given.

Sitka's penTOPS and PenCentral let Personal Communicator users connect to computer networks, where they can access files, printers, CD-ROMs and certain applications. The connection can be made through the serial port or the modem. Both programs are provided with the EO machine, PenTOPS in ROM and PenCentral on a disk for installation on the desktop machine which acts as a server.

Last, but definitely not least, comes Pensoft's Perspective, which brings the Personal Communicator concept together. On the surface, it seems to be rather like a Filofax, containing the main elements of a diary, address book and notes. The difference between this and a paper-based organiser is that any piece of information can be connected to any other piece anywhere in the system. A name could have a whole pile of personal information attached to it, as could a town, a day of the week or a meeting. The ability to dive below the surface and follow links to other documents is immensely powerful.

A meeting on 27 November could be connected to all the notes about the company concerned, the individuals at the meeting and the subject matter. These notes could have their own links to related topics; everything you're likely to need can be drawn to the surface instantly. If you haven't made the links, keyword searches can find all documents which contain a match. This even works with close spellings using a Soundex-like fuzzy matching algorithm.

Without this application the Personal Communicator would be just another interesting gizmo.

With it, the device is transformed into the powerful business aid imaginable. Do not under estimate the power of a hypertext database, a natural user interface and access to the world's databases and email users.

EO promises limited availability in March and general availability in June. Prices have not been set in the UK but a modem-less (and therefore, to my mind, pointless) 440 with 4Mb RAM will cost $1999 in the US. An internal modem adds $500 to this price and a Cellphone module adds a further $799. An internal 20Mb hard drive will cost $500 and an extra 4Mb RAM will be $300. About $4000 would buy a well equipped computer. The 880 starts at $2999 with 4Mb RAM and internal modem. Other prices are the same except for the hard drive which, at 64Mb, will cost $700.

CONCLUSION

At last year's Comdex Fall in Las Vegas, one of the speakers asked the thousand-strong business audience: 'How many people in this room are carrying a portable computer?'. Three hands went up, and one of them belonged to another speaker. When you consider that every member of the audience was in some way involved in the computer industry, this was a massive thumbs-down for mobile computing.

AT&T is gambling heavily on the belief that so far, we have not seen truly useful mobile computers. Sure, we have notebook PCs with modems which can be connected to telephone lines, but they are computers first and communicating devices second. They demand that every user becomes something of a computing and communications expert before they can be used properly. The Macintosh PowerBooks lower the barriers for the business user through their ease of use, but they still sport keyboards.

They keyboard is probably the biggest barrier of the widespread make-up of computing among senior management, which is almost certainly why hardly anyone had computers at the Comdex conference. Plenty of them probable had notepads, though, and that is the key difference. If a computer were as easy to use as a notepad, yet kept its users in tough and helped them manage their lives, the take-up might be more considerable. This is where the Personal Communicator comes in.

The $799 price difference between the cellular and the regular version is colossal but it still represents a good buy. The kind of users who will buy the Personal Communicators in the early days will place great importance on being in touch at all times. This can only be done through cellular and satellite connections. But as the prices fall, and people realise that these machines (and the vital free subscription to AT&T EasyLink Services) can also be substitute pagers, answering machines, fax machines and personal computers, they will be introduced lower in the pecking order.

EO believes that 20 million people will be using this kind of product within five years. And it believes this target will be achieved by shrinking the machine, cutting the cost and integrating the telephony components more closely. In effect, it is banking on 100 million people wanting to send little messages to each other, and what could be easier? Scribble a note and ten seconds later it has been delivered. It's an interesting thought.

In the end, the consumer take-up of these devices will be dictated by price, connect costs and perceived value. At a price somewhere between today's mobile telephone and laptop computer, they could shift like hot cakes.