1993 Discover Awards: Computer Hardware & Electronics: The Great Communicator

Friday, October 01, 1993
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
Winner

Personal Communicator

CeIeste Baranski & AIain Rossmann, EO

The problem with operating a mobile office is that even after you cart along all the technological gadgetry you need to stay in touch with home base--a pager, a cellular phone, and a notebook computer equipped with pocket modem and fax--you’re still not all that well connected. If you want to send a map with directions to a colleague on his way to a meeting, for example, there’s no practical way to do it. Likewise for faxing documents from the backseat of a taxi or retrieving a stack of E-mail messages from an airport coffee shop.

Alain Rossmann recognized the frustration that business travelers face. There is a more fundamental need to communicate than there is to compute, he says. So in 1991 he joined EO, a Mountain View, California, firm dedicated to developing a lightweight, fully integrated communications device that could serve as a sort of universal mailbox. And when the EO Personal Communicator finally hit the market earlier this year, it wasn’t just the first of the personal digital assistants that the computing world has been buzzing about; it was a quantum leap into the future of mobile communications.

The heart of the EO Personal Communicator is its integrated cellular phone, fax machine, and pen-input personal computer. Merged seamlessly into a single lightweight unit, the EO system proves that these stalwart communications devices are more powerful once joined together. EO users can send and receive phone calls and messages--anytime and almost anywhere. An attorney arguing a court case can place a call and receive specific citations from the office during a break in the trial. A manager sitting in a hotel room can receive faxes from headquarters, edit and add material directly on the display screen, and then send everything back to the office. The EO even has the capability to embed personalized voice annotations into documents.

What makes the device still more attractive is that it requires practically no understanding of computers and can be used straight out of the box. There’s no software to install, and all the programs needed to run the machine are included. Using GO Corporation’s PenPoint operating system, EO offers a day planner, a phone book with autodialer, and a note-taking program. It can also handle basic handwriting recognition--useful for transforming handwritten notes into E-mail.

Designing and engineering EO was no easy task--despite financial and technical support from the likes of Japanese conglomerate Matsushita and AT&T; (which is now the majority shareholder in EO). EO’s corps of engineers had to build the device from the microchips up. There was no model to go by; there was no accumulated wisdom from previous products, says Celeste Baranski, vice president of hardware engineering, who was involved with the project from the very beginning. Fitting so much hardware and software into a unit the size of an ordinary pad of paper was just the beginning. The biggest challenge was eliminating interference between the phone and the computer, since both emit radio signals. Another hurdle was to build a system that could power up in less than five seconds. It could not behave like a typical computer. Nobody would wait two or three minutes for this type of system to boot, says Baranski.

The result? The EO models deliver two to three times the performance of a standard 386 desktop computer. They feature a crisp, reflective LCD screen, a high-speed data modem that can send and receive faxes, a battery pack that runs three to four hours between recharges, and a cellular phone module--all in a package that weighs a mere 2.3 pounds, is less than an inch thick, and measures only 11 inches by 7 inches.

The basic EO unit, which first hit retail stores in June, sells for $2,000 to $4,000. Pricey, to be sure. But EO is betting that its Personal Communicator is going to change fundamentally the way people exchange information. Says Rossmann: It is shifting power to the individual. It is allowing people to communicate in a much more powerful way.

FinaIists

Rodger Mohme, project manager at AppIe Computer in Cupertino, California, for the PowerBook Duo System, which combines the power and versatility of desktop computing with the mobility of notebook systems. The four-pound PowerBook Duo notebook is just 1.4 inches thick and fits easily into a briefcase. When users return to their desk, they slip the notebook into a docking station to get the power of a full desktop system.

Lanny Smoot, director of multimedia systems research at BeIIcore in Morristown, New Jersey, and michel fortier, manager of multimedia systems research at BeII Northern Research in Quebec, Canada, for the video-on-demand system. This technology has the potential to replace pay- per-view programming and home video rentals. The videos are transmitted over ordinary phone lines. Users can start, stop, rewind, and fast-forward the programs at will, a feature unavailable on current pay-per-view plans, and they don’t have to visit the video store.

Koichi Higuchi, director of portable systems at IBM in Japan, for the ThinkPad 700, a notebook computer that can run applications as fast as desktop machines can. Its color screen is larger than that of any other notebook and can show as many as 256 colors simultaneously without becoming fuzzy. It features a unique pointing device, the TrackPoint II, that allows users to keep their hands on the keyboard at all times, making it faster and more convenient to move the cursor.

Dave Needle and RJ Mical, of 3DO in San Mateo, California, for the Interactive Multiplayer, which connects to standard TV sets, runs interactive software, and generates a more realistic image. 3DO’s proprietary compression technology animates up to 64 million pixels per second, a rate 50 times faster than conventional systems; its images are rendered faster than the eye can see, so the video display looks smooth and natural.

Philip Minasian, manager of adaptive technology development at Xerox Imaging Systems in Peabody, Massachusetts, for the Reading Edge, a reading machine for the blind and visually impaired that is smaller, cheaper, and more portable than any similar device. The 20-pound machine can scan documents and read them aloud in a synthesized voice. Fifteen years ago reading machines were approximately the size of a dishwasher and cost more than $50,000; this one costs $5,495.
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