Apple Newton 100 (Pt. III)

For the price I paid, the MP100 was a great device. But looking at it from a more independent (i.e. less money conscious) viewpoint, it was clear that there were several shortcomings with it:

  1. The �40, fell-off-the-back-of-an-apple-cart, model lacked any sort of case or screen protection
  2. The handwriting recognition was slow. There was an option in the handwriting preferences to set the trade-off between accuracy and speed – but going for fast recognition only ended up taking more time overall due to the need to make corrections.
  3. It relied too heavily on the handwriting recognition
  4. The tools for synchronising it with a desktop machine left a lot to be desired
  5. It was physically large

The first issue was easily dealt with by a combination of an old plastic videotape case, some green fabric (for the outside), some soft furry fabric (for the inside), some glue and a couple of hours embroidering the Newton logo during the Eurovision Song Contest (no, really). It took a while to construct, but the result was a dirt-cheap hard case which housed the Newton quite snugly.

The second issue was more problematic. The slow handwriting recognition made the whole system seem a little sluggish. The Newton developers had clearly also seen this as an issue, and included a useful mode called “deferred recognition”, which would leave your scrawl untranslated, but allow you to trigger the recognition routines later on. This was handy for taking notes, but not much use for entering data into more structured applications, such as the address book. Of course the Newton had an on-screen “soft” keyboard (several different types, in fact), but using that was also quite slow (due to the hunt-and-peck nature of on-screen keyboards, rather than due to the speed of the machine itself). Indeed the handwriting recognition was so problematic for some people that an early version of Calligrapher was available for the Newton as a third-party application – long before the invention of the Palm Pilot, which used it as the primary method of input.

The speed of the handwriting recognition might not have been such an issue if it wasn’t for the fact that it was used everywhere throughout the operating system. It was almost as though Apple was so proud of the handwriting recognition that they felt it should be used as much as possible – even where it wasn’t necessarily the best option.

The tools for synchronising with a desktop machine were not good. Whilst the Newton’s internal applications were excellent, getting data to and from a PC or Mac was fraught with problems. It didn’t help that the Newton’s applications were just so much more flexible than just about any desktop PIM software of the time – so there was inevitably a mismatch between what the computer could do and what the PDA was capable of.

Finally, the size of the Newton was an issue – it’s just that nobody realised it at the time. It was the size of a paperback book, but far more flexible than any one book could be. But unfortunately for Apple a lot of people don’t want to carry a paperback book when all they actually need is a small address book. It took Jeff Hawkins to realise this when he created a small wooden prototype of the Palm Pilot – perhaps the device that did the most to secure the Newton’s eventual demise.

When I left university in 1997 I was still enamoured with my Newton, despite these shortcomings. So as soon as I could afford to, I decided to treat myself to the latest and greatest (and, ultimately, the last) Newton: the MP2100. Did this upgrade address any of the issues above? All will revealed in the next exciting instalment

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