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Technology / AI and automation


Amstrad Plc launched its UKP300 Pen Pad yesterday, proving that you don’t need a RISC processor to build a pen-based notepad. The keyboard-free PDA 600 incorporates character recognition software from Texas Instruments Inc, and system software from the Cheshire-based Eden Group Ltd. Amstrad has eschewed the popular PenPoint operating system on the grounds that it is overly complex for the PDA’s requirements – which is basically to emulate a paper-based organiser, and that it requires too much processor horse-power. Amstrad is using three, unidentified, eight-bit processors in the machine – one is dedicated to the hand-writing recognition, the second to the screen display while third deals with general processing. The PDA will be built in Amstrad’s factory in China, currently used for satellite receivers. The machine is aimed squarely at Filofax’s market, is about same size and weighs only 14oz. The three AA batteries are said to give 40 hours of continues operation, with a Lithium cell providing back-up when it is turned off. It incorporates all the functions normally expected in an electronic organiser, including diary, clock, alarm, notepad and address book. The product certainly scores well in the initial ‘small object of desire’ stakes, but its overall success will largely depend on the quality of its handwriting recognition software. All data is entered through pen input and there is an initial training period, during which the user writes each letter of the alphabet and the digits on the screen. Upper and lower case is handled, although joined-up (cursive) writing is beyond its capabilities. Each letter is written in an onscreen box and a fraction of a second later, written the computer types it as the letter it believes it to be. Mistakes can be rectified by re-drawing the letter and should the PDA have particular trouble with a letter it can be re-trained with four new samples of the character. The user does not have to wait for interpretation, but can write ahead and subsequently correct errors. It is necessary to write carefully and realtively slowly to avoid confusion, although practice could well make perfect. An alternative mode of input is provided by the notepad function which accepts free-hand sketches and notes. The machine comes with 128Kb usable RAM, enough for around 350 address-book pages or 28 pages of bit-mapped freehand scribble. Up to 2Mb of expansion is available through a single type 1 PCMCIA slot which takes standard memory cards and application cards that are promised from the new Amsoft division. Using a type one slot means that PCMCIA devices – such as modem cards cannot be used, instead all communications will take place via an inbuilt RS-232 socket. Other nice touches are the ability to switch between English, French, Italian or Spanish prompts, and Amstrad’s intention to put the machine’s software up under Windows to simplify data transfer between PDA and desktop machine. It is intended to be the first in a family of products – Amstrad suggests an A4 colour version for architects, a desktop feature-phone with pen-screen, and in-car version with built in CD that would project the user’s position on a map through data collected by global positioning satellite. Chairman Alan Sugar denied the PDA contradicted his assertion to shareholders that the company had no forthcoming ‘blockbuster’ products. Sugar said that the PDA was certainly not a blockbuster by the standards of the early personal computer market when the company could make a clear UKP300 on each machine sold: he put the total size of the UK electronic organiser market at around 200,000 units.

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