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Newton Notes

By the time you read this, Apple will have released the Newton, in the form of the MessagePad, which we talked about in TidBITS #185. Several thousand units will be for sale at the Macworld Expo in Boston, although unless the price to the press is lower than for normal folks, I’m not coming home with one. I do hope to try one out, although no guarantees. In the meantime, Pythaeus has played with one and has these comments about handwriting recognition and communication:

The MessagePad has a preferences area, called Extras, that lets you vary the speed of recognition, trading accuracy for speed. I don’t know how accurate the recognition could have been ultimately, since you must work with the MessagePad for a few days before it completely adjusts to your handwriting, and I had only one day. But I achieved satisfactory results for entering appointments and similar simple tasks if I waited for about a second every five words. Not bad!

You meet the Newton halfway on recognition. It has a number of different versions of each letter and symbol it recognizes. So, in another part of Extras you get to go through each letter and symbol and choose which forms you use most often and least often (your rendering of the letter "E" will change according to whether it’s cursive or not, capital or not, and what letters are on either side of it).

You cannot train the MessagePad to recognize unsupported characters; you must fit one of the characters supplied, or learn to use it. This may prove a handicap for people with truly abysmal handwriting. No shorthand yet, although there’s room there for a third party to step in and make some money fast.

Once you and MessagePad agree on what characters you’ll be using, you can practice in another area. It flashes words up from the dictionary to let you write them, and it tells you how sure it is that it will recognize the word later. Pretty soon I’m sure we’ll have a game that helps you practice handwriting recognition. Should help while away commuting time if you have a MessagePad as well.

I believe I could be up to 100 percent accuracy in a month or so. Like any new device, it takes adjusting to, although far less adjusting than is necessary with a computer.

Beaming Etiquette — Apple has anticipated the social gaffes that might be committed in a room full of people beaming information around with Newton-based products (the beaming is done via infrared). The MessagePad lets you temporarily hold all incoming "beams" ("beam" is Apple’s way of describing both the act and the information itself). Future models will include a polite message in reply to hopeful beams, like "Sorry, but Adam prefers not to receive your beam right now." You also get confirmation that your beam was received by the correct person at the end of transmission. Can you imagine the fun that people could have using MessagePads to send each other love letters, cheat on tests in school, and otherwise perform acts that could be thoroughly embarrassing if made public?

I’d like to see this functionality used more seriously in the future to limit the unnecessary paper waste at trade shows and the like. Instead of picking up a glossy brochure that you’re going to later lose or throw out, why not just point your MessagePad at a special transmitter to pick up contact and product information automatically? I’m sure it won’t happen soon, even if everyone does have a MessagePad, because it would require marketing departments to adapt to the way people absorb information, something they have trouble doing.

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