The term “Personal Digital Assistant”, or PDA, was originally coined specifically for Apple’s Newton. These days it’s a more common term, applied to everything from Palm devices to Windows Mobile systems. But perhaps it’s bandied about a little too easily these days, because whilst these young pretenders to the name are both “personal” (they’re small and pocketable, and typically used by only one person) and “digital” (they’re… well… digital), they’re not really “assistants”.
The Newton was most definitely an “assistant”. It even had a built in application called “Assist” which did exactly what you might expect of a personal assistant – or at least of a digital one. Scribble “Lunch with Simon on Tuesday” into the assistant, and it would schedule a lunch appointment with the most likely Simon from your address book. Scrawl “fax this to Bob” and it would find Bob’s fax number in your address book and fax him the document you were currently looking at. It may have drawn the line at beating up Martin, but otherwise the Assistant worked pretty well.
The reason why the Assistant was able to perform its magic is due to one of the underlying design decisions made by the Newton team. Rather than storing data in simple text or binary files, as most PCs do, they were stored instead in database files called “Soups”. Each soup was accessible by any application on the Newt, and it was possible for a program to access a conglomeration (or should that be consommé) of all of the soups stirred together as one big database. This allowed any application to access the data from any other application – and the databasey nature of things gave it all some structure.
The obvious result of all this gazpacho was the Assistant. It could use the super-soup to easily search through all of the data in the Newton, and because the database model provided a little structure to things, it could safely add a new appointment here, or an alarm there. It was the Google Desktop of its time – only moreso, because it wasn’t limited to just searching for data, it could also create it.
Soups are just one example of the innovations that went into the Newton. The whole operating system had been designed from the ground up to be pen-driven, and to thrive as best it could within the limitations of the Newton hardware. Clever design tricks allowed the built-in applications and widgets to be easily extended by third parties, with soups letting them seamlessly work with the data from the native applications (or from other third-party applications). The “object oriented” operating system made it possible to extend the Newton’s core code (which was stored in read-only memory) without having to use up much of the precious RAM (the early Newtons only had 640KB of RAM – and at the time ROM was cheap, but RAM was not).
Technically the Newton was a triumph. The handwriting recognition worked well enough. The operating system could be twisted, extended and expanded in ways that its designers hadn’t even imagined. It really did live up to the idea of a “Personal Digital Assistant”, and I certainly considered it £40 well spent. But not everything was perfect with the MP100, and that will be the subject of Part III…