Macworld Boston news abounds this issue with an in-depth look at the concepts and analysis surrounding Apple’s newest and coolest device, the Newton MessagePad. Mark Anbinder provides his annual Macworld superlatives article, and we look at a new company spun off from CE Software, PrairieSoft. Finally, although merely a MailBIT, it’s important to note that the Newton MessagePad won’t officially ship for several weeks so don’t bug your dealer until then.
Macworld Boston is over, and only two of the four days were utterly hot and uncomfortable. Boston drivers were, well, indescribable, and the city itself continues to bears less and less resemblance to the published maps. The netters’ dinner was a success, as always, although several of us thought afterwards that we need to find a company to throw a stand-up party with food for Internet folks to facilitate mingling. My only regret is that I couldn’t talk with more people at the netters’ dinner – I enjoyed the company of those with whom I did spend time immensely. Several pictures were taken and I hope they appear on the nets in scanned form – pretty soon we’ll tape the event and turn it into a QuickTime movie to waste even more net bandwidth than Apple’s 1984 commercial.
Newton Rollout — One caveat to all the Newton comments you hear in TidBITS and other publications. It appears that although the Newton was introduced at Macworld Boston, the official rollout will take place in about two weeks. The practical upshot of this is that dealers won’t have any Newton MessagePads for sale until that time.
Working full-tilt on products like QuickAccess for Newton and a Casper-friendly version of QuicKeys, not to mention continuing development on QuickMail, means that CE Software has much less time to work on its other products, time which the company feels these products deserve. Therefore, CE has spun off its non-messaging, non-scripting products to a new company made up of former CE staffers and called PrairieSoft.
Announced at Macworld Boston, PrairieSoft takes over support and development of In/Out, Amazing Paint, Alarming Events, MockPackage, MacBillBoard, and DiskTop for Macintosh. All of these products don’t quite fit CE’s newly-focused, streamlined approach to messaging, "personal agent," and scripting technologies.
Among the CE veterans at the core of the new company are its president, Gil Beecher, along with John Kirk, Paul Miller, and Luke Lund. These and others were among CE’s most senior staff members and were among the staff laid off in CE’s downsizing a few months ago.
PrairieSoft plans to announce itself to its already existing customer base via a newsletter in the near future. In the meantime, the company can be reached at:
P.O. Box 65820
West Des Moines, Iowa 50265
515-225-4122 (technical support)
Turnabout is Fair Play — There have been several products to let Mac users read DOS-formatted disks over the years, from the DaynaFile drives to the collection of software taking advantage of the SuperDrive. Rumor has it that there have been shareware solutions for DOS users who wish to read Mac disks, but finally there’s a high-profile commercial product – from the DOS experts at Insignia Solutions. MacDisk, shipping soon, is a simple, straightforward product that allows Mac disks and their contents to be accessed within DOS and Windows; DOS 6.0 is supported (but its compression won’t work on the Mac volumes), and the developers expect to be able to claim official support for OS/2 and DR-DOS after some extra tests are completed.
Insignia Solutions — 800/848-7677 — 415/694-7600
Most Worthwhile "Me Too" — Usually the second company to market with a comparable product finds itself at a disadvantage. Not so with Stac Electronics, whose Stacker driver-level disk compression software goes up against Times Two from Golden Triangle (which we mentioned in last August’s Macworld Superlatives list, in TidBITS #137). Stacker uses the same compression engine as Times Two; Stac licensed their LZS engine, also used in their DOS version of Stacker, to Golden Triangle last year. The innards may be the same, but Stac points out a number of interface and implementation differences that they feel put them in the lead. Initial examination suggests there are plenty of differences; we’ll examine them in depth at a later time.
Stac Electronics — 800/522-7822 — 619/431-7474 — 619/431-0880 (fax)
Welcome to the 1980s — Aldus has finally shipped PageMaker 5.0, the long-awaited version that includes an ability perfected in most applications the better part of a decade ago: handling multiple open documents at once. Don’t get the idea, though, that we don’t applaud Aldus’s achievement. We do! In the process of modifying this old application to handle multiple documents, Aldus software engineers played leapfrog with much of the rest of the market. PageMaker 5.0 allows any object to be moved or copied from one document to another in the most intuitive way imaginable – by dragging. Kudos to PageMaker for extending the desktop metaphor.
Aldus — 206/622-5500 — 206/233-7404 (fax)
2 + 2 = 4 — PSI Integration wins the award for most intelligent combination of existing technologies with the introduction of its FAXcilitate Broadcast product/service. PSI has combined its newly-revamped fax-sending software with US Sprint’s fax broadcasting service to produce a product that makes it easy to send faxes to as many as thousands of fax recipients with a single toll-free call. According to literature distributed at the PSI booth, it would cost about $140 and take just a few minutes to send a two-page fax to 200 recipients through the FAXcilitate Broadcast service, whereas the same fax sent directly to each recipient would take hours.
PSI Integration — 800/622-1722 — 408/559-8544 — 408/559-8548 (fax)
Best Revival — This close contender for Best PowerBook Product actually deserves its own category, since it’s the best use of old technology in a new way. Back in 1985, I bought the first scanner available for Macintosh, and ThunderScan’s creators, ThunderWare, have done it again with the first scanner (that I know of) designed specifically for PowerBook users. Their handheld, battery-powered scanner uses a similar design to the popular LightningScan, and since it sports a serial interface, it should work with literally any PowerBook (including the Duos) or, presumably, any other Mac.
ThunderWare, Inc. — 415/254-6581 — 415/254-3047 (fax)
Best Battery — There must have been a dozen vendors showing or selling replacement batteries or add-on batteries for PowerBooks, but the ThinPack from VST deserves special recognition. It’s neither almost as big nor almost as heavy as your PowerBook (as some add-on batteries are), and you can put it under the PowerBook as you use it, or leave it connected via the included cord while it sits out of the way, perhaps in your briefcase or carry-on bag. If you want to use your PowerBook for several more hours than you dreamed possible, give these folks a call. (Note that there’s no Duo battery yet, and color PowerBook owners can expect a less-dramatic extension on battery life.)
VST — 508/287-4600 — 508/287-4068 (fax)
Worst Congestion — After attending several Macworld Expos, I’ve grown accustomed to wending my way through crowds of impressed folks trying to look at the wares at one booth or another. Badly-designed booths can cause quite a bit of blockage in the aisles. The award goes to Adobe, though, since at several points when I tried to get by, their demonstrations were literally blocking the entire aisle. A novice could be excused for putting a visually-interesting display at the corner of a booth, with no place for onlookers to stand other than in the aisle, but veterans like Adobe should know better. Please, folks, when planning your next booth, if you want show attendees to be able to stand and watch, provide for some space within your booth. Don’t use all the space out to the edge of the booth so there will be no place to stand other than the aisle. If you’re hoping that the congestion will get more people to stop and see what you have, grow up and let your product stand on its own two feet. [I’d like to give Apple an honorable mention for this as well – I couldn’t even get close the AV Macs every time I tried. -Adam]
Unfair Competition — It used to be that Global Village Communications offered one of the strongest fax/modem products, but at a premium price. Competitors could smugly say, "Yes, theirs is better, but ours is cheaper." No more, thanks to Global Village’s introduction this week of the TelePort/Bronze II, a redesigned version of the company’s low-end modem without some of the bells and whistles. Global Village’s customer surveys concluded that most people never use many of the fancy features, so this new $109 modem leaves out the data compression and error correction from the 2400 bps data modem, draws power from the Mac’s ADB instead of from an expensive, clumsy power adapter, has no voice/fax switch, and doesn’t include the company’s fancy OCR (optical character recognition) software for turning received faxes into editable documents. But with a basic product that does everything most people need, and does it with Global Village’s award-winning fax software, other companies will find they can no longer compete on price alone.
Global Village Communications — 800/736-4821 — 415/329-0700
Best Newton Vaporware — While we’re at it, there were lots of almost-ready add-on products for the Newton MessagePad being shown, both on the show floor and at the Newton Showcase at Boston’s Symphonic Hall. The most impressive-looking (given our biases toward universal email access, of course) was CE Software’s QuickAccess prototype. QuickAccess (invoked on the MessagePad through the use of the action word "qac," pronounced "quack") will enable roaming Newton users to access their QuickMail, Novell MHS, or PowerTalk (AOCE) compliant mail servers. To CE’s credit, the prototype sported not a Newtonized QuickMail interface, but a new approach to mail access that seemed much better integrated with Newton’s overall design.
CE Software, Inc. — 515/224-1995
Best Old Idea — SuperMac did this years ago with their DataStream tape drive, and I’ve been wondering why no one else has. Optima Technology has just released a new version of its DeskTape software, which will now be available separately from the company’s storage devices. DeskTape uses the familiar desktop interface for high-capacity tape storage, allowing DAT cartridges to appear on the Finder desktop. You can drag files to and from your tape drive, and even open and use applications or documents that are stored on tape. The advantages for graphic designers and service bureaus are obvious, even though the access time for such devices can be as long as 26 seconds. DeskTape can’t work with tape archives created with backup software like Retrospect, but once you create a DeskTape volume on a DAT cartridge, you can use just about any backup software to back up or archive files to that volume.
Optima Technology Corp. — 714/476-0515 — 714/476-0613 (fax)
Hungriest — We mentioned Focus Enhancements as being "Most Evident" at last August’s Macworld Expo. They had a slightly lower-key presence outside the World Trade Center this year (only a few local youngsters handing out bags and buttons) but an even bigger booth at Bayside Expo Center. Focus operates by finding good technology and acquiring it, then selling and supporting it directly. This month we learned that Focus has just acquired ETC, the mail-order company seen in the pages of many a Mac magazine. According to Focus, they’re most excited about having acquired ETC’s European distribution channel, since there’s a large European market just waiting to buy high quality products at mail-order prices.
Focus Enhancements — 617/938-8088 — 617/938-1098 (fax) — [email protected]
Long-Lost Cousin Award — While Apple introduced its Newton MessagePad with lots of noise and commotion, Apple’s Newton manufacturing partner Sharp Electronics quietly released its own version, the Sharp Newton ExpertPad. The ExpertPad is identical to the MessagePad except for the name, a hinged door to cover the screen, and (as a result of the door) a slightly different pen-holder. Newton enhancements should work equally well on either unit. If past performance is any guide, Apple’s version is likely to be hard to find for a few weeks (supplies were artificially abundant at Macworld) and the ExpertPad is likely to be available at just about any Sharp consumer electronics dealer.
Sharp Electronics — 800/237-4277 — 201/529-8200
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.