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Apple Newtons II

by Adam C. Engst

Last week I talked briefly about what the Newton technology entails, setting myself up for this week's analysis. If you haven't seen last week's issue, I recommend you take a look.

Underneath all of Apple's hurrah over Newton being a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), I see Apple attempting a paradigm shift. This paradigm shift may not be in the way people use computers but in the way people think about computers. It may not equal being clunked on the head by an errant fruit, but it's still important. And, to quote Foghorn Leghorn, that famous cartoon chicken, "Clunk enough people on the head and we'll have a nation of lunkheads." Hmmm...

Newton fits into Apple's class of Personal Digital Assistants, but most, if not all, of the technologies in Newton make up most, if not all, of what you would need for a full operating system. Apple's marketing folks may not want this to get out, but a Newton device is a computer that can do computer-like tasks given appropriate software. The question is, then, why has Apple sidestepped the terminology?

The term "computer" comes loaded with linguistic baggage linking it with numbers. After all, the first computers were machines that merely did basic math quickly. Computers have changed, and despite the ubiquitous spreadsheet, the vast majority of the time you use a computer you do not directly work with numbers. When you move the mouse, type on the keyboard, or look at a graphical display on the screen, you are not directly manipulating numbers, and in fact, one of the reasons for the Mac's popularity is that it removes even more of the explicit numerology from using the computer. You can drop into EDLIN under DOS and play with hexadecimal, but a Mac in its default mode will try its hardest to avoid spewing indecipherable numbers at you.

Despite this move away from numbers, the Mac is a computer, and no one pretends otherwise. Here's the trick. Apple wants all the people who have avoided a computer in the past to buy a Newton device, because the Newton is not a computer. It's a Personal Digital Assistant, and the fact that it doesn't do everything (which is often expected of computers) is fine - you wouldn't expect a human assistant to do everything for you either, although that person might help out a great deal in keeping track of your addresses, your schedule, and so on.

I've heard that one way to visualize how Apple intends the PDAs to complement today's computers is via a time-based graph. Along the Y-axis is the ability to perform a task well, while the X-axis is a time line for a project from start to finish. Computers, including the Mac, generally start out low at the beginning of a project and become more useful as the task progresses. It's not your imagination - it is hard to get started with brainstorming and conceptualization on a computer. That's where the PDAs come in. They start off high at the beginning of the project, and move down since their capabilities after the initial conceptualization are limited. Presumably, when the lines on the graph cross, it would be a good time to move work from the PDA to a computer, where it will be easier to solve the now-established problems. The power of Newton devices will certainly increase as time goes on, but with the addition of Newton technology in our Macs, the utility of computers at the beginning of projects will also increase.

Of course, this graph applies primarily to the so-called "early adopters" who will buy something at almost any price because they know they need it, and that set of people largely overlaps with the set of current Mac owners. Hence the additional emphasis on wireless communications and all that, which is in reality just magic that many people won't care about, assuming, again, that the primary audience will be non-computer users who will get started on Newton and then may even decide to try a computer.

Looking at that set of non-computer users, Apple's bean counters started drooling. There are millions of personal computers in use right now, but there are many times more people who have never touched one, and probably will avoid it as long as possible. I'm sure you all know people who have less than no interest in and may even be hostile toward computers. And then there are people who might like computers and may even be using them, but for whom the generalized power of the average computer just isn't quite right. This is why I've talked a lot about a Newton "device" - Apple intends to create many different types of Newtons for different specific ("vertical" in the jargon) markets. One example is a Newton for architects that would have a large screen that the architect could sketch on while talking to clients, the Newton cleaning up the sketch all along and saving it for further embellishment in a CAD program. Another example involves building Newton technology into student desktops so that the students can all communicate with one another and the teacher, who would have a desktop and a blackboard-sized display on the wall. No more dusty hands and spine-shivering chalk squeaks, but just think of the note-passing abilities! Actually, the realities of the school environment (little money and hard use) would seriously limit the efficacy of such a Newton, but it's still a neat idea.

I think there are several other rationales behind not calling the Newton devices computers. Despite Apple's acknowledged better graphical interface and well-thought out hardware, the majority of computer users (PC-compatible users) see Apple and the Macintosh as small fry, and quite frankly, many of them are so biased that they refuse to even try a Mac because "I'm just not a mouse person and it's not a real machine." There's no way Apple could sell a little pen-based computer to those people - they can't get past their mental blocks about Apple's computers. But a cute little Newton device that talks to their PC as well as it talks to Macs... that's another story.

Also, by positioning themselves outside of traditional computer market, Apple escapes the otherwise-inevitable comparisons with GO, IBM, Microsoft, Compaq, etc., and moves into an arena with Sharp, Casio, and Sony. I don't wish to imply that these companies are easy competition, but just think of Apple's two main advantages. First, although Newton is not a computer, Apple is a more obvious computer company, so despite the contradiction, that fact makes Apple appear stronger in comparison. Second, Sharp has licensed the Newton technology, and Sony and other selected companies will soon follow. These licensing deals, prominently mentioned, put Apple at the top of the heap before they've even introduced a product because it says that this Newton stuff is so cool that only Apple could have created it and everyone else has to license it from Apple. Of course, all this is moot for the time being, and we have to wait until the Newton devices show up in stores before making any final judgements. Nonetheless, I think Apple has done some intelligent positioning that just might pay off big.

Information from:
Jeremy Norberg --