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Apple Newtons I

Last week at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, Apple unveiled Newton, the company’s first new product line since the Macintosh debuted in 1984. Amidst the hoopla, Apple has made some fascinating claims, and if Newton lives up to those claims, we will all be better off.

But this week, let’s look at what Newton is, other than a rather tasty confection from Nabisco usually filled with figs, although there are apple-filled Newtons as well. (Call out the lawyers!). "Newton" is being bandied about both as the name of the Star Trek-like communicator (in snazzy black rather than gaudy 60’s gold) and as the name of the overall technology. Since there is no shipping product as yet, I’m going to talk about the technology rather than the demo unit.

Newton Intelligence — There are five basic parts to the Newton technology. Newton Intelligence watches the user’s actions so that it can predict what to do in future situations, much as Super Boomerang tracks recently used files. Apple’s example of this is that if you wish to schedule lunch with Jane on Thursday by writing "lunch Jane Thursday", Newton will know that lunch is around noon, Jane is Jane Green from your address book, and that you probably mean this Thursday. Interestingly, Apple has made no claims about artificial intelligence or expert systems here, but Newton Intelligence appears to be a step beyond what most programs can do in this regard.

Recognition Architecture — I said above that you’d write a few words and Newton would recognize them. At the moment, you’d do that with a pen on the screen of the Newton demo unit. Basic handwriting recognition is a major input method for Newton, but Apple is working on other recognizers, which will drop in as easily as a system extension on the Mac. These recognizers will include cursive writing, math (remember Milo from last week?), other character sets like Kanji, and even speech. Unlike other pen-based systems, Newton will not require the user to write in boxes or even on lines, and it will also be able to refine rough sketches into cleaner drawings. Apparently, Newton employs several different recognition technologies at once, leading to greater accuracy and flexibility.

Information Architecture — Apple has designed Newton to handle the trivia of everyday life: phone numbers, addresses, scrawled maps, notes to remember a clever turn of speech. As such, Newton uses an object-oriented data structure so that the data you put into Newton can be categorized in multiple ways and inter-linked when necessary. In the lunch example above, the note "lunch Jane Thursday" will require a cognitive link between "lunch" and 12:00 PM, an associative link between "Jane" and Jane Green in the address book, and an entry in the appointment book for Thursday at noon. I’m sure my terminology with cognitive and associative isn’t perfect, but you get the idea that Newton uses these little chunks of linked data.

Communications Architecture — "No Newton is an island." Apple designed the Newton technology to be an active communicator. Newton devices will have built-in wired and wireless communication abilities, and Newton will know, for instance, to hold an outgoing fax in your Out box until it can make a connection with a fax modem. Newton devices will be able to communicate with each other well, thus making it easier to share interactive data with a friend or coworker. These features may end up relying on the TeleScript work going on at General Magic, although Apple claims that none of General Magic’s work is currently present in Newton.

Hardware Architecture — None of this would be possible with current 680×0 chips (think of a 68040 hot potato that runs for about 17 seconds on a charge), and the first Newton will use a RISC processor created by Apple and Advanced RISC Machines (ARM), a British company which Apple helped start and owns part of. The ARM 610 processor combines high speed and low power consumption. In addition, Newton devices will support a recent industry standard for portable plug-in cards, and a superset of that standard called TRIMBus. Cards that could plug into such a slot include ROM cards of data or programs, tiny hard disks, pagers, modems, or even low-power Rube Goldberg devices that pour water on your head to wake you up in the morning after having prepared breakfast and printed out your customized newspaper.

As my self-imposed deadline and size limit both draw near, I’m left with so much to talk about, so much in fact, that there’s neither time nor room. Next week I’ll talk about the relationship of the technology concepts to the cool unit that Apple showed at CES and how that device relates in turn to the Macs many of use in our daily lives. I’ll also investigate briefly some of the proposed uses of the Newton technology and compare them with some of the current applications that have failed in the same areas.

Information from:
Apple propaganda

Related articles:
MacWEEK — 08-Jun-92, Vol. 6, #22, pg. 1

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