It’s pretty impressive, what with the Newtons, Compaq iPaq, Sony MagicLink (with Magic Cap OS), and Philips Nino prototype. The retrospective just shows how far we’ve come – from pen-based B&W screens to today’s magic pixie dust.
Posts tagged “PDA”.
Patrick Rhone at Minimal Mac:
Well, wait until I tell you that I used a Newton MessagePad as my main “daily worker” for years. Every model from the introduction of the MessagePad 120 all the way until the 2100. I used it for web browsing (as it was at the time), reading, email, notes, calendar, address book, word processor, and much more. In other words, exactly as one would use any portable computer. During that time, I saw the sort of computing I was able to do with a handheld device, and the way I was doing it, as the future of computing. With the introduction of the iPad, my faith in that future is regained.
Rhone is springing for an iPad as his main, everyday computing device. Instead of purchasing a new Macbook, he’s keeping his old, black Macbook and “upgrading” to an iPad.
The linked article, the one where Rhone talks about using his Newton MessagePad as an everyday machine, is fascinating:
I used it for everything. I took all my notes with it, used the external keyboard to type up documents and e-mail, managed my schedule and contacts, and, with the introduction of the MessagePad 2000, used it for most of my web browsing. My desktop computers were always simply a backup and data conduit for my Newtons. I did not even own a laptop, my Newton could do all that I needed in a mobile situation.
“All that I needed” is the key quote here, because the iPad (and the Newton before it) represents what most people need: e-mail, writing, viewing photos, browsing the web. For years now, the low-end Mac folks have been saying this same thing as a justification for using classic Macintosh computers. If all you need is e-mail and Word, why not use a PowerBook G3?
But take that idea and make it lovely, fluid, and seamless (and affordable), and you have the iPad. All the stuff I love about Macs – the file system, the tinkering, the more in-depth and specialized software – is what turns most of the people I know away from computers. They don’t want the hassle. They just want to do stuff.
With the Newton, you could have it both ways. Take computing and abstract it: make it a notepad, a calendar, and a few data-tracking apps, and control it with a pen. Or dig into the soup and pry open Toolkit and have your way with the device. The kicker was that this device was too expensive for the simplicity it offered. And hampered by technological limitations of the ’90s.
Simpleness. The Mac shot for it. The Dynabook did, too. The Newton. Magic Cap. The ideal was an affordable, portable, light weight (upkeep-wise), intuitive device that let you get your work done and organize your life.
Rhone felt the Newton was enough in its day, and now feels the iPad is the successor to that simplistic legacy. I think he’s right.
If you’re reading this, the computer – a Mac or PC or Linux box – probably holds a special place in your life. You tinker, you develop, you read up on ways to do things better, or how to fix problems. You work with a screen with a CPU and a keyboard, with an operating system you can change and tweak, with software you can install at will. For me, it’s a hobby. I can’t imagine life without the computer as I know it (in my case, the iMac I’m writing this on).
But for some, like Rhone, the iPad is all they need. For heavy lifting, they can keep a backup.
The Newton used to be the iPad in this equation, as Rhone points out. And for some, the MessagePad will always hold a special place in our hearts. Time and technology, however, have passed the Newton by. If you want to watch movies, browse the almost-full web, play your iTunes content, or even see your pictures in color, and you want the ideal portable computing device, you’re going to have to get an iPad. The Newton can still do a lot of what the iPad can do, and it can still be a useful device. It’s just that the iPad gives you a richer, more modern way to do it.
Rhone calls it a “return to the future” – a sense of some far-off, ideal gadget that fulfills the promises of the early ’80s and ’90s. It’s amazing to think that this flat, touchscreen gadget can, day-to-day, replace a Mac notebook. For me, it couldn’t happen. I wouldn’t want it to happen.
But for some, like Rhone, it’s finally feasible.
Check out our interview with Grant from a few weeks back at The hello Show.
Now that an Apple event later this month is official, the tablet rumor mill will churn with industrial-level speed.
The consensus, from what I’ve read: 7-10″ touchscreen, digestable media (print, video, and otherwise), apps ala carte, and some sort of web connection. All that’s almost certain. And, on the surface, the rumored Apple tablet sounds like an updated Newton MessagePad.
Any similarities are superficial, of course. At 12 years old, even the youngest Newton shows it age. But let’s say we were to take a MessagePad 2000 or 2100, or even an eMate 300, and bring it as close to a modern-day Apple tablet as possible. What would we need?
To start, we’d need applications – and lots of them. We’d also need some connectivity with our Macs or PCs. Some sort of media viewability would have to be there, as would an Internet connection. For people to use it, they need to easily understand how it works. Lastly, we’d need support from Apple.
Fat chance on that last one, and we’d never get a color screen, but the rest of that checklist is doable with the Newton. It wouldn’t be as fast, colorful, or rich as a yet-to-exist Apple tablet. But as a proto-tablet, the Newton is it.
As Wired points out in a recent article about network computer (from Oracle’s Larry Ellison):
We tend to think of technology as a steady march, a progression of increasingly better mousetraps that succeed based on their merits. But in the end, evolution may provide a better model for how technological battles are won. One mutation does not, by itself, define progress. Instead, it creates another potential path for development, sparking additional changes and improvements until one finally breaks through and establishes a new organism.
It’s a great article about how technology often gets ahead of itself in the idea department. In time, the tech catches up with the brainstorm.
I couldn’t help but think of the Newton while reading the piece. In this case, Apple pre-empts itself with its own device.
We’ve seen pieces of the Newton, and of PDAs in general, transform into the modern smartphone: personal information management, notes, on-the-go apps. The Newton was made to be a stripped-down PC to take on the road; not quite as powerful, and much more portable, than a laptop. You could sync it with your computer, or you could run the device completely on its own.
Except for the syncing part, the iPhone does this. In fact, I know friends who only sync their iPhone when they have new iTunes content to upload. Most of the time they’re downloading apps and digesting music from Apple’s mobile apps. After the initial set-up, and if you ignore every software update available, it’s possible to control your iPhone without ever syncing again.
Along with the hardware interface, the key is good software. The Newton had its share. In fact, it had apps like the ones Apple brags about in its iPhone commercials – financial apps, games, personal information apps, etc. Some developers are still making apps for the Newton, and work continues of Mac and Windows apps that help manage the device.
The iPhone’s popularity comes partly from its depth and breadth of apps. It’s safe to assume that this app-friendly environment will translate to the tablet.
The Newton’s level of abstraction – souping up a notepad metaphor and controlling it with a pen/stylus – helped make the device understandable. With a tablet, Apple has already done the hard work by standardizing the touchscreen interface. In both cases, Apple takes the prevailing interface innovation of the day and runs with it.
In the Newton’s day, consuming iTunes-level media was tough. Hard drives weren’t big enough, Internet speeds weren’t fast enough, and the software didn’t exist to manage all that music and all those movies. We had Quicktime, and some simple CD players, but there’s no way I could have ripped my 8,000-song music library onto the computers of the day.
Given that, there were ways to consume media with the Newton. You can listen to music on one, with a little push and pull, and the Newton’s eBook format is still in use today, with tons of titles available. All before Amazon.com ever launched.
Think of the Newton, and the iPhone today, as the perfect airport device. If you don’t want to lug a bunch of books or a laptop on a trip, the portable Newton is perfect. Read a book, play a few games, scribble some notes to yourself. Whatever. If you’re a small business owner, or hooked up to a large corporate network, you can even get some work done.
This is the tablet ideal: something portable to carry all your consumable stuff.
The Newton was one of the first devices to help the idea of e-mail spread with NewtonMail. Here was a handhald mini computer that you could use to send faxes, make phone calls, and check your e-mail – and even browse the Internet.
As fun and geeky as it is to connect with a Newton, it still pales to Mobile Safari. The web has grown up a lot, and it makes it almost silly to think about doing anything other than checking out text-only sites.
Now, exceptions exist. If you’re a member of the Newton community, half the fun is seeing how many exceptions you can create. But accessing the web is where the tablet will really shine.
The point is, Apple paved the way in accessing the web from a mobile device with the Newton. With the iPhone and soon, supposedly, the tablet, it’s built a mature system.
FAILURE BEFORE SUCCESS
As the Wired article shows, pioneering projects often come out before the world is ready for them. For Oracle, the network PC lacked the infrastructure to deliver Internet-on-demand computing. But it helped show that the desktop computer wasn’t the last best idea out there.
It is worth noting that, in retrospect, the Newton was an expensive gadget. Without comparing specs and ability, when you look at a $500 unsubsidized iPhone compared to a $1,000 PDA, it’s easy to see where the Newton stretched the average American’s budget too tightly. It could be that, at the time, the technology simply cost more then than comparable technology costs now. Lower costs certainly lead to wider adoption, which explains why the Newton struggled to gain momentum.
But still, with the Newton, the idea of a mobile, self-sustaining device that allows you to consume media, get some work done, and make connections in an intuitive way was set in motion before the world was ready. Apple has shown, with the iPod and iPhone model, that the MessagePad ideals are still viable and ready for action.
Now that everyone is waiting with clenched teeth for the rumored tablet, the Newton ideal seems like it has finally found its place in the world.
“Many devices (real, vapor, and theoretical) have tried to fill that vast portability gap between laptops and iPhones (even back when they were called PDAs and they didn’t have voice or wireless data capabilities and nobody bought them except rich people and geeks like me). Historically, this has never succeeded in a way that’s even close to mass-market penetration, including impressively forgettable eras as the ‘palmtop’ computer and the Tablet PC.”
Take the iPhone form factor, marry it to the Newton’s stellar handwriting recognition, and you have the latest in PDA technology.
Above is a Notepod – a simple notepad shaped like an iPhone. For $18, you get three pocket-perfect notepads shipped from Australia. On the outside, you get a blank iPod Touch-like page, while the inside pages have grid-style paper for notes, doodles, or iPhone app ideas.
Maybe best of all, it recognizes your handwriting no matter how drunk you get – even if you don’t.
Or you can simply make your own with the Hipster PDA templates over at Active Voice. Whichever.
Via DIY Planner.
“To be useful as a PDA, the Newton should anyway be always close. It is instant on, and the Notepad is capturing notes indexed by time. As a recording device, the Newton is unbeatable, and it has some pretty obvious advantages over the index card method: Backups are possible, storage is almost infinite, you can carry the whole system with you all the time, and you can search and extract more easily.”
- Eckhart Köppen, from the NewtonTalk list.
“It is easy to cite examples where less capable products have superseded more capable products. My favorite example of that is PDAs. I still have three classic PDAs: HP200LX, Newton MessagePad 2100, and Psion Revo. All of these have been unavailable for a decade or more, yet in many ways each has features that have been unmatched in newer and ‘better’ products.”
- Michael Anderson at Gear Diary, on the “crapification” of products – or how we’re setting for “good enough.”
Something called Magic Cap has been mentioned in the NewtonTalk mailing list lately. It has some resonance in the Newton community: Magic Cap was a competing PDA paradigm, and was helped along by two Apple pros – Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld.
Developed by General Magic, Magic Cap was an operating system that operated with a room-based metaphor: you did work in your office, you went in the hallway to grab an app, and maybe you strolled outside to get something else done. Tasks were assigned objects in each room, like a notebook to write notes or a file cabinet to access files.
Steven Levy, writing for Wired, gives a good description of the Magic Cap OS:
It had a very nice interface that obviously drew upon Bill’s HyperCard and Andy’s Mac interface, with the unmistakable graphic imprint of Susan Kare. The basic screen looked like a desktop with various tools; on the desk was a postcard that one could fill out and send to anyone…And incidentally, the interface does not use handwriting recognition. You can use a pen or your finger to draw or write on the screen, but digital text is entered with a virtual keyboard – which, surprisingly, doesn’t work too badly for short messages.
Sony (above) and Motorola, among others, developed hardware for the Magic Cap OS in the early ’90s. It became quite the operating system, using object-oriented programming and connecting with the Information Super Highway (this was the ’90s), mirroring both the user-friendliness of the Mac and the usefulness of the Newton.
Funny thing, though: there’s a psuedo-version of Magic Cap, General Magic 1.5, for the Newton.
Phil Muller pointed me to UNNA.org’s archived version of Magic Cap/General Magic. I read that the MessagePad’s version of General Magic only worked on Newton OS 1.3 systems, and that it had only been tested on MP120s.
My MP110, however, runs OS 1.3, so I downloaded the package file from UNNA and installed it using Newton Connection Kit (above). After a quick upload, I found General Magic in my Newton’s Extras – and what do you know, it launched fine.
General Magic presented a literal desktop interfact, complete with notepad (that led me back to Notes), calendar (that sent me to Dates), and both an Inbox and Outbox. In the upper corners of the screen, pointers directed me to the Hallway, where the rest of my packages – like Newtris and Pocket Money – sat inside picture frames. Click on the app icons with a stylus and the app opens up. Tony Kan over at My Apple Newton does a nice job of going through many of the Magic Cap apps and settings.
It’s a super-simple interface, and I supposed once you memorize what each icon represents (it wasn’t always intuitive for me), you can navigate your way around the Newton. General Magic is just another way to interface with the Newton OS (which is why it’s filed under “Backdrops” in UNNA’s archive), except with pictures and icons showing you where to go. It reminds me of Apple’s eWorld interface.
General Magic seems silly, though, when you need to make your way to your apps. Instead of the Extras drawer sliding up, showing you all your installed apps, you have to click your way down a hallway to view each app’s icon individually. I can’t imagine a circumstance where this would be easier than simply picking one icon from a few that are in the Newton’s Extras drawer.
Still, it’s a fun emulator to play with – especially considering Magic Cap was competing with the Newton back in the day.