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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

User-Friendly Servant Is Here

NEW YORK -- It doesn't look quite human yet, but the electronic servant has arrived.

As computers and networks have grown more complex, researchers and software designers have been working on a way to cut through the electronic mess.

Their answer: the "intelligent agent," a secretary and gofer rolled into one sophisticated computer program.

They can be thought of as representatives of a computer user who zip into cyberspace to set up meetings, buy airplane tickets, arrange flower deliveries and find out who's picking up the kids after school.

The most futuristic visions give agents human features. In a promotional AT&T video, the husband of a doctor asks her "agent" why he's so good-looking.

It will take several years for that lofty vision to become reality.

But since January, companies that are General Magic Inc. partners have been issuing a steady stream of product announcements that embrace Telescript, software that includes agent capabilities.

The General Magic partners are: AT&T, Apple, Motorola, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Philips NV, Sony Corp. and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corp.

The latest small step in the General Magic campaign came this month when Motorola Inc. introduced a $1,500 wireless, handheld computer called Envoy that uses the General Magic software.

Telescript agents will "simplify the integration of electronic mail, paging, faxing and information retrieval," said Gene DeRose, the vice president of Jupiter Communications Co., a New York research and consulting firm.

The agent concept has been around in a limited fashion for several years.

For instance, investors have been trusting computers to monitor the stock market, buying and selling shares at predetermined prices. The risks of high-volume computerized trading, seen as a culprit in the 1987 stock market crash, are a striking reminder of what General Magic will be up against when it begins asking people to entrust their hard-earned money to a computer.

On a less perilous level, a variety of existing programs already help people cope more effectively with time-consuming chores like answering e-mail and sorting information available through on-line services and electronic networks.

CompuServe and Prodigy offer a personalized clipping service that combs electronic publications and databases to create a customized newsletter. CompuServe has developed a new software product named CSNav that allows people to program their CompuServe routine, with the computer quickly doing the work, saving hook-up charges.

There are also software bloodhounds that roam from one on-line source to the next for relevant trade journals, legal filings and legislative developments a company may desire. Still, there are countless other chores using computers and computer-based services that consume a lot of time. This is the frustration that General Magic is trying to alleviate.

Motorola's announcement -- little more than an official naming ceremony for a well-publicized product that won't be ready for the market until summer -- helps pave the way for General Magic.

With Envoy and AT&T PersonaLink, a new Telescript-based electronic network to begin this summer, General Magic hopes to establish its software as the standard for communicating with computer devices.

It faces challenges from Microsoft Corp., which developed the software that runs 80 percent of all personal computers and is aiming for new devices; Geoworks, the base software on Tandy's handheld device; PenPoint, the software that runs AT&T's clipboard-sized EO communicator; and Apple Computer Inc., which has developed the programs for its handheld Newton.

All these companies must get people used to a computer handling affairs in the manner of a secretary.

One key will be to write the software so the agent capabilities guarantee privacy and are safe from tampering.

"I don't think any of us are going to let any of these agents close the loop on anything significant," said Bill Ablondi, analyst at BIS Strategic Decisions.

It took years for standards to be ironed out in personal computers and videotape recorders. The demand for computer-based communicators is unclear, at best.

"There are a lot of chicken-and-the-egg questions about who's going to provide services and who's going to use them," said Kimball Brown, analyst at Dataquest, a high tech research group in San Jose, California. "But by 1997 or 1998, it's going to get really neat. The people using these devices will be more efficient and those who don't will be left behind."