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Using the Newton MessagePad

[This is the first of a several part series that we plan to run about the Newton. We'll have a look at the hardware, the operating system, some devil's advocacy, and third-party add-on information. This week we bring you a detailed look at using the Newton, with more real-life details than we've read elsewhere. -Tonya]

A flick on a spring-loaded slider awakens the MessagePad and it comes up in the application you were last using or showing a big Newton logo and a window for writing the password.

Once you are in, you move around the different parts of the system by tapping the icons below the screen: Names, Dates, Extras, Undo, Find, and Assist. The default application is a notepad, but by tapping the Names and Dates icons, a Rolodex-type application and a scheduling/to-do list application load, respectively. The Extras icon opens a window with icons for utility programs, such as the Prefs program which lets you adjust the MessagePad's settings. Extras also has In and Out Boxes for incoming serial or beamed data and outgoing print jobs, faxes, or beams. The icons for programs on PCMCIA ROM cards appear here as well. Between Extras and Undo sit the vertical scroll arrows that steer you up and down through multiple screens of text or graphics. Undo has two levels. Find searches for information in either the current application or the entire system. Assist summons Intelligent Assistance to perform a job for you. I checked out the Intelligent Assistance by writing "See Rob Monday at 10" in the NotePad. I then tapped the Assist button, causing the Assistance to open the scheduler, find the upcoming Monday's date, and put the note "See Rob" into the appropriate 10 AM slot.

Certain applications will present various icons at specific times. For instance, a small folder icon lets you organize lists of information in up to 12 named folders, a keyboard icon summons the mini-keyboard, and a letter icon provides access to the mail, printer, fax, and beam functions. The letter icon also lets you duplicate or delete objects.

Small diamonds indicate pop-up menus that appear with a tap. This pop-up menu remains present until you select a menu item or tap elsewhere on the screen. Small boxes with an X in them function identically to Mac window close boxes. In all, the interface is uncluttered and easy to understand.

Text Entry -- You enter information by writing or sketching on the screen. If the text recognizer misinterprets portions of a word, you can correct the error by jotting a new character over the incorrect one. You wipe out entries with a scrubbing gesture over the offending text or graphic. The MessagePad then erases it with a smoke puff animation. Other gestures add spaces between characters or convert them to upper or lower case. Tapping on a word twice summons a pop-up menu with alternate interpretations of the word, the "ink" image of the word, and a keyboard icon. If one of the alternate words is the correct word, you pick it on this menu. To save the writing as ink, you select the image. Choosing the keyboard icon summons a miniature keyboard where you can tap on the keys to make corrections in a pinch.

The text recognizer works well and interpreted most of my printed text. I wrote "handwriting recognition fairly hit-and-miss", and the text recognizer got the first three words correctly, and came up with gibberish for the last three words. The dashes caused the gibberish. According a draft copy of the MessagePad Handbook, punctuation must be placed close to the word to be recognized properly. Because the recognizer uses dictionaries and name lists (your own additions to the dictionary) for the recognition process, results of interpreting my handwriting were either frighteningly accurate or a hodgepodge of obscure words and numbers. Nevertheless, the recognizer is adept at handling certain writing idiosyncrasies. When I take notes, I go back and dot the i's after first writing the word. This quirk didn't bother the recognizer at all.

A Handwriting Practice section in the Prefs area provides practice words to write so that the Newton OS can analyze and adapt to your writing style. It takes about 150 words to train the text recognizer. When you use a MessagePad for the first time, it pays to spend a half-hour or more in this section. In the Handwriting Styles section, a slider lets you specify how much of your writing is cursive, printed, or a mixture of the two. A Recognition Preferences section lets you fine-tune both the text and graphics recognizers for certain situations (in text, whether to recognize numbers and punctuation; in graphics, whether to connect shapes in a drawing, among other options). Overall, I was impressed with the MessagePad's text recognition, but I print blocky letters (an old habit from my FORTRAN days). Still, be prepared to use Undo and practice the gestures to make corrections.

Selecting, Dragging, and Parking -- To select an object, you hold the stylus on the graphic or text until a large ink blotch appears. You then swab this ink, which acts like a highlighting marker, over what you want to select. Tapping twice on a selected object and holding the pen down makes a copy of the object that you can then drag elsewhere.

After you select an object, you can "park" it by dragging it to the screen's edge, flip to another Newton application, and drag the object into that application. It's a nice visual metaphor for a Clipboard that should be easy for the non-computer user to grasp. Also, programs can control what type of information gets placed in an object. For example, when you enter a phone number in the Personal area, the window you write in only accepts digits. This goes a long way to reducing user errors.

Linking to the Desktop -- What if you have hundred names and numbers on your desktop computer, and you'd like them in a MessagePad? Or, you've recorded dozens of new contacts on the MessagePad, and want the information on your Mac or Windows PC? Apple provides a Newton Connection Kit for just this purpose. You connect to the desktop computer with the supplied serial cable, or in the case of a networked Mac, by plugging the MessagePad into a connector on a LocalTalk network. A Newton Connection application running on the host computer establishes communications with the MessagePad, and synchronization of the data between the computer and MessagePad happens automatically when the machines connect. You can use this method to backup MessagePad data or install new programs.

Printing and Faxing -- To test printing, I plugged the MessagePad into a LocalTalk node on BYTE's AppleTalk network. From the Outbox, a printer selection window showed me the various network zones and PostScript printers. A tap on a printer name, then one on the close box, and another tap on a Print button, and a minute later a duplicate of the note appeared on a page coming out of a LaserWriter Pro 630. Faxing didn't work so well for me. Lacking a MessagePad fax modem, I plugged a Global Village TelePort/Gold fax modem into the serial port. According to the status window, the MessagePad attempted to connect to the modem, but never succeeded. So much for using third-party modems at the moment, but remember, this was beta hardware and software.

Thoughts -- Based on just the built-in Name and Date applications, the MessagePad doesn't seem much of a win. After all, you can use the low-tech yet practical schedule book and rolodex to arrange meetings and track contact information. However, a MessagePad equipped with a functional fax/modem and Messaging Card for email changes the situation and might make a MessagePad perfect for people who travel constantly and yet must make decision to turn a business on a dime.

Third-party Newton applications may make a case for owning a MessagePad. For example, GeoSystems' Fodor's 1994 Travel Manager lets you call up the maps of ten largest cities in the U.S. and locate hotels with their phone numbers. Selecting a hotel in, say, Boston, gets you a bitmapped map of the city with a circle outlining the hotel's location. Tapping on the circle zooms you into a map of the city block, complete with street names. You can summon up a To/From window, where you can drop in the hotel's name, and the name of a restaurant you located in another part of the application. You then get street by street directions from the hotel to the restaurant. The ability to navigate through a new city using the MessagePad shows its value as a general-purpose device, given the proper software. [If this proves popular and MessagePads sell in other parts of the world, I see no reason why GeoSystems wouldn't put out software for cities worldwide. -Tonya]

For vertical markets, the MessagePad's light weight, combined with the ability of the Newton OS to restrict the types of data entry makes it suitable for forms handling. As an example, an insurance company's accident form might allow text entries in some sections, numbers only in other sections, with an area where a field agent can sketch an accident scene using only ink. [More on third-party applications coming in a future TidBITS issue. -Tonya]

The MessagePad, as the first implementation of Newton technology, is an impressive technical achievement. Based on my experience with the beta unit, the Newton OS is fast and stable, and the Intelligent Assistance does a good job performing useful tasks based on the information in the system and the context of your actions. Currently, there are few applications that can take advantage of the Newton technology. However, that will change. The MessagePad is an excellent platform from which developers can create the applications that can do new and innovative things on the handheld, mobile computer that the MessagePad represents.


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