CUPERTINO, Calif. - Dash off a hand-printed memo on a small computer screen and it regroups into neat block-letter form. Write "call Bob" on the device and his phone rings. Pen in "lunch Janet Thursday" and the date's made.
A magic machine? No, Apple Computer Inc. wizardry.
The company previewed its "personal digital assistant" technology today for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, a much-awaited debut that was more promise than product. The first real PDA, code-named Newton, is at least nine months away from store shelves.
"We're not going to show it all," teased Apple Chairman John Sculley at a preview for reporters this week. "The more we show, the more we'll get copied. But you ought to know, there's a lot more."
Sculley calls Apple's first new product line in nearly a decade - the last was its 1984-era Macintosh - the birth of a $3.5 trillion "megaindustry" that will combine computers and consumer electronics.
He's not alone in his vision. It's shared by Apple PDA technology partner Sharp Electronics Corp., a Japanese company promising its own line of "smart" handheld machines to help people organize lives and businesses.
And Tandy Corp. and Casio Computer Co. of Japan announced this week they together will create pocket-sized machines that use pens rather than keyboards.
"All I can say to sum Newton up is, it's cool and I want one," said Pieter Hartsook, editor of the Alameda-based Hartsook Letter that follows Apple products. "I'm sure that almost everybody I know will want one, too.
The black, videocassette-sized prototype Apple has been showing - which the company says "might" be its first PDA - has a 3-by-5-inch screen that looks like a clear notepad with lines. The device weighs about a pound.
This model was demonstrated in Chicago, but the software was running on a larger computer for display onto a big screen. Apple doesn't yet have a fully working PDA prototype.
When PDAs hit the market, they will come in several models with different functions, according to Apple's vision, which started coming into focus four years ago.
The price will be below $1,000, perhaps as low as $600, and may drop quickly if competitors take Apple up on its offer to license its software to foster growth of the new machines.
"From now on it's just straight engineering," said Larry Tesler, vice president of Apple's Newton Group. "We don't have to do any more inventing."
PDAs are supposed to help users like a good assistant who, with little direction, automatically files, makes phone calls, sends and retrieves faxes, types letters and reminds the boss about appointments.
Apple's PDAs won't understand spoken words, although Apple is working on a technology dubbed Casper that could provide that capability. Instead, the PDAs are controlled by an electronic pen that can be used to write and point to "bubbles" and "icons," or pictures, on the screen.
Apple's prototype is covered in a black plastic shell that flips open to reveal the lined notepad screen and seven bubbles at the bottom, labeled "who," "what," "when," "files," "form," "find" and "assist."
Drawing a line across the screen separates notes so a user could jot separate thoughts as they occur.
"The way people work is they don't want to work sometimes. They just want to get things down," said Steve Capps, the engineer behind much of the PDA technology and a developer of the Macintosh's easy-to-use features.
A user could print notes and later turn them into a business letter by tapping "form." The "who" bubble opens a Rolodex-type name and phone number file, which flips with shuffling sounds. The "when" bubble reveals an appointment book.
The "file" bubble has varied functions, according to Capps, who pulled up "in" and "out" boxes that could allow the PDA to communicate with other machines via fax, computer network or phone line.
Newton will contain a built-in modem to send messages over a phone line to a fax machine or another computer. It also will have a wireless infrared link to send and receive data at distances of about six feet to another machine.
The PDAs will have an "intelligent" software operating system, called Dylan, that gives them a dose of human-like logic. For example, if a user writes "lunch Janet Thursday," the PDA makes the proper date in its appointment book - for about noon on the following Thursday.
But Apple won't market the PDAs as computers. The company doesn't want to intimidate the average person who has trouble programming a VCR.
"We're designing a line of products that is so easy to use that they actually assist the user," said Michael Tchao, manager of PDA marketing.