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Newton Arrives

At every good Macworld Expo, people talk about the one hot arrival, an arrival that overshadows everything else, no matter how cool. This year the debutante was Apple’s Newton MessagePad. Where to begin? A quick course in terminology. Newton is the machine type, whereas MessagePad is the specific model, much as Macintosh is the machine type, and Quadra 840AV is the specific model. So it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about the Newton, much as you would talk about the Macintosh. The fact that only one model of the Newton exists right now is moot.

For those of you with your heads firmly clamped underneath large geologic formations for the last two years, the Newton is Apple’s personal digital assistant (PDA), a term for an electronic device that helps you do whatever it is that you do. I believe Douglas Adams might have called it "your plastic pal who’s fun to be with." More Newton models will arrive in the future, presumably aimed at specific market segments, although the current MessagePad requires more work before we’ll see other models. I think it’s important to avoid the term "computer" when talking about the Newton, because even more so than the personal computers of today, the Newton does little numeric computing (other than at the lowest level, of course) and instead provides specific services.

What does it do right now? The MessagePad lets you take notes, which can be graphics or text, and which in turn can remain digital ink (pixels) or turn into ASCII characters. You can file those notes in a single hierarchy of folders; duplicate or delete them; or fax, mail, or beam them to someone else. Faxing and emailing require an optional modem, whereas beaming uses the built-in infrared transmitter/receiver to move data over a short range (approximately one meter). Along with notes, the Newton contains an address book and a calendar, and all are integrated so you can easily snag information from one to use in another, or the Newton can do that for you. For instance, writing "lunch with Bob on Friday" and asking the Newton for assistance results in the Newton looking in your address book to figure out who Bob is (giving you a choice if several people are named Bob), then realizing that lunch is usually an hour at noon, and adding an event to your calendar for this Friday. It sounds hokey, but it works.

All that functionality aside, I’m not buying one soon. Why not? Think for a moment about what I do. I sit around all day, absorbing large quantities of information and creating smaller quantities of information. I talk on the phone, and I can get 100 email messages in a day, many of which require responses, some quite lengthy. I use a database for my addresses and a calendar program for my few appointments and my to do list, but both are accessible on my Mac at all times, and I seldom leave the house for anything business-related. So the current Newton MessagePad doesn’t simplify any of my tasks. I don’t pretend that I’m in any way typical though, so I think many people will find the MessagePad’s feature set invaluable. The important thing to figure out is if you are the sort who communicates, facilitates, schedules, or manages, because that sort of person will have far more use for the Newton than someone who spends most of her time creating information.

If you try out a Newton at a store, keep in mind that the Newton performs poorly in demonstration mode. The Newton’s handwriting recognition is adaptive, so it improves over time and learns how you write. In 15 minutes of playing with the Newton, you’re unlikely to find it all that accurate, although your mileage will vary depending on how closely your handwriting matches one of the Newton’s built-in letterform sets. The first time I tried the MessagePad it could hardly recognize a thing I wrote, but I only tried for five minutes. The next day I took Apple’s Tips and Tricks for New Newton Owners class (they didn’t check if you had bought one), and wrote on it for 45 minutes. The second test worked much better, because it had a chance to adjust to me, and I to it. [Please note that Adam has certifiably poor handwriting 🙂 -Tonya]

The Newton must succeed. Without its fresh view of how we can interact with electronic devices, the evolution of human-machine interaction will proceed far more slowly. Even people at the show who were openly dubious about the utility of the current MessagePad were thinking of uses by the end of the Expo. Possibilities like controlling VCRs and TVs and using VCR+ codes to program the VCR with an improved interface, walking into a trade show and having a map and directory beamed to your Newton on entrance, completely up to date and searchable. Someday soon you might interface a Newton with an ATM machine to get electronic money, or beam your Newton at a cash register, to pay for your purchase, complete with RSA encryption. We’re talking about the future.

So again, the Newton must succeed. Not only for Apple, but also for us. No other computer company has shown the guts necessary to introduce such a radically new technology in such a big way. Without Apple and the Newton we would be stuck with DOS-compatible palmtops, constantly shrinking in size and remaining as stupid as ever. I’m the last person to pretend that Apple has all the answers, but I’ve never seen another company willing to drop the old and the obsolete along the wayside to keep progress rolling. And all that even if it annoys some customers. I realize this sounds like the egomania of Steve Jobs, but some things must be done because they will change the world, because they are the right thing to do. Apple must now convince the world that the Newton is the right thing to do, that the Newton will change the world. So easy to say, so hard to do.

And how will the Newton change the world? I can’t say, and neither can Apple. Don Norman points out in his latest book, "Things That Make Us Smart," that in almost no case has a new technology been used in the manner in which it was conceived. The United States first thought it could cope nicely with only three or four computers, and that it would only need one telephone for each city because information would be broadcast from that point to surrounding areas. Those initial conceptions were so completely wrong as to be ludicrous. The PowerBook was a far smaller change in technology, but even still, the PowerBooks have changed the face of computing. People no longer must sit at a desk and work, and more so than preceding laptops, I think the PowerBook created the first class of users who regularly consider the computer a device to be used whenever and wherever – from the couch in the living room, to the waiting room as the car is repaired, to the airline seat. That’s a smaller change, but Apple never suggested most of those uses in its advertising; instead people invented them. Similarly, we can only guess at the ways the Newton will be used and abused.

I see two major hurdles for the Newton in the near future. First, as many have said, the pen is not the device of choice for entering large quantities of text (although it is often better for graphics than the clumsy mouse). Apple has to come up with a Newton device for creating and manipulating large quantities of information. The device itself is not so much the problem as the method of entering data. The keyboard has proved its danger in overuse and misuse, and voice input faces other problems now that it has arrived on the scene in prototype form. Perhaps one consideration is the translation of data from one format to another – is digital ink necessarily always worse than ASCII text? Is a digital voice recording worse than ASCII text? Should we pay increasingly more attention to transmission and manipulation of data in native formats rather than always translating down to the least common denominator? I’m certainly no example for this with TidBITS in the least common denominator setext format, but it is a valid question.

The second hurdle the Newton faces is scalability of interface. In other words, the MessagePad interface works well with the amounts of data that I saw stuffed into it at the show. But will that interface, with its single level of folders and relatively small screen for scrolling lists, become overwhelmed with the amounts of data that users will want? Perhaps not, since the flash memory is limited to 1 MB and 2 MB cards at the moment, and someone said that Apple recommends you don’t use a card larger than 4 MB because it would make too much data available at once. One way or another, this issue will come up, and I hope that Apple has kept it in mind while developing the Newton, in contrast to the way it didn’t keep scalability in mind when designing the then-innovative MacOS.

But despite all the negatives to the MessagePad, it is one slick item. It shows great promise, and I believe that in many ways the Newton is going to be important, not just important as a hyped technology, but important as a technology that truly changes our lives. For all the Mac’s power and flexibility, little has changed since 1984. The Newton represents that next step for Apple and for us users as well. It’s important to remember that the Newton isn’t trying to be a computer as we understand the usual desktop Mac. The Newton is a Newton, and it needs to succeed on its own terms, not as a mini-Macintosh.

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