After publication of my article "Reflections on Life Without Newton" in TidBITS-418, I received many email messages with a common theme: "Your article confirmed that Newton technology is what I’ve been looking for, but in light of Apple’s decision to stop Newton development, what should I do now?" [See "Newton Falls from Apple Tree" in TidBITS-419. -Jeff]
For those who already own Newton MessagePads (or eMates, which also use the Newton OS), the answer is simple. The Newton will continue as a viable platform for at least the next year. There is a wealth of products, and most vendors of Newton software have committed to supporting the platform in the near future. Inevitably, new software development will shift toward platforms with a more definite future and migration to a new system will become necessary.
The Essentials — Folks looking to make their first investment in handheld computer technology have a tougher choice. When I decided to try handheld computing, I identified two essential features.
The first was that the device must be operable while standing, carrying a book or briefcase, and without having to stare directly at it. Paper-based organizers meet this criterion, and it is one of the reasons that laptop computers failed to displace daily planners. As a resident physician, I generally work in clinics or hospitals where table space is at a premium, and I often write while standing in hallways carrying books or charts. In my years as a consulting engineer, I often found myself in similar situations. A device that isn’t usable under these conditions might as well stay on my desk.
The second feature was reliability. For years I had used computers to help organize my personal life, but I realized that, even with scrupulous attention to backups, data could often be lost. In the medical field, losing data you gathered even minutes before (or losing a critical to-do item) could be devastating. In other fields the effect might be less dramatic but could be equally damaging in the long run. If you cannot absolutely trust your handheld computer, you will have a difficult time migrating away from paper.
In 1994 only the MessagePad met these requirements. In 1998, the situation has changed little. Handwriting recognition seems to be necessary to satisfy the first criterion. Physical keyboards require either a solid surface on which to set the device, or two-handed operation. Onscreen keyboards require constant visual attention so you can’t enter data while looking elsewhere.
Any device based on DOS, the Mac OS, or Microsoft Windows cannot provide the bulletproof reliability needed to compete with paper. Windows CE might eventually approach Newton’s reliability, as might the rumored handheld version of the Mac OS, but reports from early users of "WinCE" devices are discouraging: crashes with data loss seem to be fairly common. It is a difficult engineering task to add, retrospectively, the kind of reliability the Newton platform has had from its earliest releases.
The Future in Your Palm? Of the remaining players in the handheld computing field, 3Com’s popular PalmPilot is best poised to fill the gap left by Apple’s departure. Though some people object to the PalmPilot’s gesture-based entry system, Graffiti (originally developed to rescue the error-prone handwriting recognition of early Newtons), I find Graffiti an easy-to-learn, rapid, and accurate input method. In some cases it is superior to natural handwriting recognition, especially when I’m not looking at the screen while writing. The PalmPilot’s operating environment is both open (encouraging development of third-party software) and reasonably reliable.
The PalmPilot suffers mainly from hardware limitations. Reliability, for example, is compromised because current devices lose their memory if left without batteries for over a minute. If your replacement batteries are defective or installed incorrectly, you could suffer irretrievable data loss. The next generation PalmPilot device, the just-announced Palm III, incorporates some flash memory and should be more stable.
3Com is also addressing other hardware limitations. The new Palm III features an infrared port for data exchange. If it can eventually be made to support IrDA printers as well, that will go a long way toward increasing the flexibility of the device. The Palm III still lacks the capacity to add PC Cards or other storage devices, which limits its usefulness as a reference library or repository for significant amounts of data. Palm devices with more than 1 MB of memory can access Web and Telnet services, which is a step forward in this regard.
Newton or Not? If all you want is a device to replace your paper-based organizer, the Palm III looks reasonable. Unfortunately, its relatively small RAM configurations, limited expansion options, and lack of a direct printing capability restrict its usefulness as a complete replacement for a handheld computer in the MessagePad category.
If you seek a device that fulfills more of the promises of handheld computing, stores personal, business, professional, and reference data in your pocket, and accesses the limitless resources of the Internet, Newton is still the only viable option. For some, the falling prices of the Newton MessagePad 2100 will soften the blow of having to convert to a different platform as their Newtons become obsolete. Others will opt to continue with paper-based methods until 3Com/Palm Computing, or some other forward-looking organization, produces a device that can fill the Newton’s shoes.