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Waiting for Newton

Apple’s most actively publicized secret at the moment is Newton, the code name for the company’s upcoming handheld personal organizer, and for the collection of new and adapted technologies making up this project. Despite Apple’s usual policy of keeping unannounced products secret, Newton has been all the rage in the trade journals, among industry watchers, and even in Apple’s publications and satellite television shows.

Newton will undoubtedly be a remarkable achievement when Apple releases it later this year (the time until the first Newton-related product introduction is now measured in weeks), combining handwriting recognition, "intelligent" guesses about what our scribblings and scrawlings might mean, and a completely new way of storing data. However, one effect of all this publicity has been to push the development of competing products.

One such product is the newly-released 2.2-pound EO, developed by a consortium of companies including GO Technologies (who created the unit’s PenPoint user interface), manufacturing giant Matsushita, and AT&T. EO even looks like one of the prototype Newtons we’ve seen pictures of – a pad with a screen in the middle and "ears" protruding from each side. The ears, shaped like a Duo’s floppy adapter, serve the similar function of providing ports and connectors.

EO includes many of Newton’s promised features. It has an icon-driven interface and handwriting recognition to turn written block letters into "normal" computer text (a cursive recognition module is anticipated in a matter of weeks), and while it doesn’t yet know how to turn a rough sketch into an even square or circle, EO can guess when you write "lunch with Bill Tuesday" that you probably mean next Tuesday, you probably mean noon, and if you don’t mean Bill Gates, it presents a list of the other people named Bill listed in your contacts database.

EO’s $799 cellular phone option provides not only a handheld Oki telephone that you use just like any other cellular phone, but also a level of integration that lets EO dial Bill’s number for you and provides the capability to send or receive faxes just about anywhere. The unit’s 8 MB of ROM contains its operating system and nine bundled applications. The RAM (4 MB expandable to 12 MB in the basic model) is therefore free to manipulate data, and free for other PenPoint applications that you might choose to add to the internal hard drive. Software can be added via EO’s PCMCIA type II slot or its optional external floppy drive, which attaches via a port on one of the ears that doubles as a parallel printer port.

Rumor has it that Apple, even fairly recently, had not yet decided which of several Newton units to release first: the handheld unit with a flip-up cover that looks like Dr. McCoy’s tricorder should have looked but didn’t, the letter-sized pad with large screen area and ears, or some other variation. Another decision reportedly up in the air centers around which of the new technologies, some still under development, should be released in the first round. It seems likely that the decisions have been made by this late date, but I’m worried that some of the decisions might have been based not on what’s ready or what makes sense, but on what’s needed to go up against EO, Sharp’s existing products, and other competitors’ electronic organizers. (Some of Sharp’s upcoming products are based on Newton technology.)

One advantage Newton will have from the start is that its projected selling prices (in the $800 neighborhood for basic versions) are far lower than EO’s price tag (from $1,999 for the 4 MB model with no modem and no hard drive, to around $4,000, depending on the model and options you choose). It remains to be seen whether Newton’s features will be comparable, and whether the look-and-feel of the package as a whole will prove worthwhile. For those who hate waiting, though, and don’t mind that the ultimate evolution of the Rolodex, DayTimer, and Filofax lives in a product that costs dozens of times as much, EO is available today.

EO — 800/458-0880

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