When personal computers burst onto the scene 10 years ago, we were all told how much time they were going to save us, how much more efficient we would become, and how everything from communicating and calculating to writing and researching would be easily accomplished at the touch of a keystroke. Yeah, right. While it's true that desktop computers allow us to do some amazing things, they only help us do those things if we're sitting right in front of them telling our software exactly what to do. In the popular Microsoft Windows program, for example, we must open each window, click on each icon, and browse through each menu personally before finding the command we want. The same is true in computer networks, in which we have to personally locate and interact with each database. When we log off, all value provided by the computer vanishes. No work is done unless we are there to do it. But thanks to the Telescript technology developed by General Magic Inc., a spinoff of Apple Computer Inc. established in 1990 in Mountain View, Calif., all this may change in the near future. Telescript allows for the development of mobile, intelligent "agents" that are like little computerized servants who do your bidding even when you're not around. Agents are like having a secretary, messenger, and personal manager all rolled into one and installed on your computer. For instance, say you get dozens of e-mail messages each day and you find it simply takes too much time to scan them all looking for ones that are truly worthwhile. With the right Telescript-based software, you could have an e-mail agent monitor the messages, dump the ones you don't want to read, and put the urgent ones at the top of the pile. With another program, you could assign an agent to watch the stock market for you or to monitor a sales database to inform you of an important lead. The idea of personalized, adaptable applications has been made so compelling by the explosion of on-line information through computer networks, especially public networks such as America Online, says Jim White, General Magic's vice president of communication engineering. Currently, only the network operators have any influence over the software that runs on server computers, he says, and users are at their mercy. Another problem with networks -- as they exist today -- is that the data are passive; the information is simply transported based on the user's commands. Telescript gets around the inherent rigidity of networks by empowering developers to, for the first time, create applications that can be used in the network environment. How? By allowing them to create agents that furtively move through networks, meet with other agents, collect information and perform tasks on your behalf. Ultimately, Telescript software won't box you in or limit you to the network's protocol. Instead, it will let your computer take advantage of information and services on different kinds of networks, in different brands of computers, on both wireline and wireless media, all over the world. The technology can handle text, graphics, animation, live video, and sounds. In a nutshell, agents can go virtually anywhere and do virtually anything for you. If you have a business trip coming up for which you need to make flight reservations, with today's technology, using a public network, you could search through flight schedules, find a convenient time for your departure, shop for the best airfare, and book your flight. With the use of software equipped with intelligent agents, however, you could instruct the agent to do all these things for you. But more than that, on the day of departure the agent would know to check the flight schedule to make sure it was on time. "If all is as scheduled," Mr. White says, "then the agent just sort of dies off. But if there is a change in times or flights, the agent comes running back to you." Intelligent agents are at the core of General Magic's corporate vision to create a whole new industry known as personal intelligent communications. The products and services that make up this industry will help people communicate more effectively, find information more easily, and manage their lives more efficiently. But -- unlike other so-called productivity-enhancing tools on the market -- General Magic is striving to make this technology something that people will welcome into their lives, not something that adds complications because of a difficult, time-consuming learning curve. Realizing that no one organization could deliver all the components necessary for personal intelligent communications to become a reality, including hardware, software, and network services, General Magic's founders have forged partnerships with companies known for changing people's lives with their products and services. That's why the 140-employee company lists Sony, Motorola, AT&T, Matsushita, and Philips as its corporate partners. General Magic's part of the pie is to create the technologies that its partners and other developers can turn into usable products and services. In fact, the intelligent agents Telescript makes possible won't become a reality without the interest and participation of these other companies. This is why, when Mr. White -- the "father of Telescript" -- is asked what General Magic's technology allows us to do that we couldn't do before, he says: "The question is what will third-party developers do with it? It's just like the PC, which would be nothing if it weren't for the developers who've built many different kinds of standalone applications. Our job was to dream the dream and to conceive the technology that would make the dream possible. It's up to others to make it a reality." In September the first product and service to make intelligent-agent technology a reality hit the market. Not surprisingly, they are the result of joint efforts between General Magic and its corporate partners Sony and AT&T. The Magic Link communicator introduced by Sony is a 1.2-pound handheld computer that incorporates the Telescript technology. By connecting to AT&T's new PersonaLink service -- which is the electronic "cyber-community" the agents travel through -- Sony's communicator can screen and sort incoming faxes, e-mail, and pages. It can manage the user's schedule and coordinate appointments, check stock prices, give last night's football scores, and provide weather forecasts. Eventually, as more merchants join AT&T's electronic community, users will be able to use Magic Link to send intelligent agents shopping for them. If you wanted to order a dozen roses and two theater tickets, for instance, you would enter your request into the computer, where it would be received by a software agent. The agent would travel into AT&T's PersonaLink network and search other computers that list florists and ticket sellers. The agent would find the lowest-priced bouquet and the best-available seats and report back its findings within minutes or even seconds. You could then punch a button on the computer, instantaneously ordering the flowers and tickets by credit card. According to Bill Fallon, director of marketing for AT&T's PersonaLink Services in Parsippany, N.J., the hierarchy involved with Telescript works this way: General Magic is the technology provider; AT&T, through PersonaLink Services, provides the infrastructure that harnesses the technology; and Sony's Magic Link provides the way to access the infrastructure and direct the intelligent agents to carry out the tasks. "So what's the big deal?" you may be asking yourself. "On-line shopping, e-mail, and information access are already realities on public networks, right?" Yes, they are, but the difference is that the Telescript agents developed by General Magic can be customized to shop, access e-mail, and get information for you in the way you want it. You don't have to shop, organize your mail, and search for information on your own. Simply ask the agent to do these things for you. Furthermore, you're not restricted by the particular network in which you are operating. Telescript technology can be applied to public and private services, for business or consumer use. In addition, new services can build on existing ones. A new entertainment-coordinating agent, for example, might call on existing ticket-sales services, a travel agent, and a restaurant finder, even though each of these services is run by a different firm. For the potential of Telescript technology to be realized, software developers, merchants, information service providers, and other future residents of the electronic community will have to become involved. And this takes time. In fact, it may take years for the dream of an integrated electronic marketplace in which agents travel on behalf of their owners to become a reality. But once it does, imagine the possibilities.