Sunday, January 15, 2006

Newton Technology in 2006

With the Worldwide Newton Conference going on and all the attention currently focused on the Newton, I was recently posed the following question:

Everyone keeps saying that the Newton could do things that no other PDA can. Could we get some examples?

People who haven't used the Newton tend not to recognize its capabilities, as they're not something that are really obvious from the outside. At first glance, it may appear to be just a bulky (and these days, old) PDA.

This is really a flawed analysis, though. Even though the term PDA was coined to describe the first Newton MessagePad, its current usage tends to be more associated with less capable devices that have since come onto the scene in force and took the term for their own. Both Apple and Newton, Inc. realized this themselves in the final couple years of MessagePad production, and they tried to distance themselves from the term by calling the later model MessagePads "hand-held computers".

These days people can better understand Newton devices if they compare them not to modern PDAs, but instead to modern tablet computers. The difference may be subtle, but at the heart of it is the idea that a typical modern PDA is something one uses as an extension of a desktop computer (and it has to be synchronized all the time to stay useful), while the tablet computer can itself serve more or less as a replacement to a desktop system.

The Newton devices sport a freely available, yet sophisticated development environment with a choice of modern languages. They support a wide range of hardware and protocols including 802.11g wireless networking, Bluetooth, land-line ethernet, and IrDA in addition to regular telephony (including both FAX send and receive as well as networking). They can handle extremely large memory cards, and they use these essentially as solid-state drives (they don't use hard drives). They have grayscale displays large enough to do some real work, and the entire display is touch-sensitive with support for free-form natural writing anywhere. Its handwriting recognition system is good enough for everyday use, can be tuned to one's own handwriting, and is flexible enough to handle accented characters. For those times though when writing isn't comfortable, they have a keyboard add-on that's small enough to fit in a winter coat pocket but large enough for touch-typing. It has a powerful, yet energy-efficient processor that makes for long battery life (and it can even use standard AA batteries). Its OS is fully multi-tasking, and it's capable of even playing a few movies simultaneously without losing frames.

Internally it also has some interesting concepts and capabilities. Its concept of "soups" makes novel exchange of data between applications possible. Its "Intelligent Assistant" gives it the ability to turn random, unscripted commands like call Mom or fax Darren not just work, but do the appropriate thing based upon your current location (supplying phone area codes, region codes, and prefixes as needed) and other factors (like time of day).

The combination of all of these factors makes for an extremely adaptable device.

For applications they have all the usual things expected from a PDA (like notebook, address book, calendar, etc.) but also have the sorts of full-featured apps one would expect from a tablet computer (like a word processor good enough that people have literally written novels with it, a spreadsheet app worthy of a desktop, a graphing calculator, a personal finance system, etc.). In addition to these things, they have modern Internet apps (including among others what's probably the best e-mail client I've ever seen on a hand-held device and a full graphical browser) plus some more technical apps like Telnet that (coupled with all the networking capabilities mentioned above) make the device good for checking out networks in addition to its more typical tasks.

They of course also have all the sorts of applications that people over the years have written for hand-held devices of all types; if your interest is astronomy, there's software for you; if your interest is hiking, there's software (with GPS support) for you; if your interest is photography, there's software to connect to your digital camera; if your interest is interactive fiction, there's software that will let you run all the Z-machine titles, including all the original Infocom games as well as all the newer stories.

They have a great built-in e-book parser, and in fact, the Newton book is according to some the original e-book format. This is of especial interest not just because there are large libraries of Newton books available, but because during the late '90s Newton, Inc. (before it was absorbed into Apple Computer) released the details of its Newton book packaging format to the world. The Newton book format is thus arguably an open format, and is thus open to all sorts of uses without fear of future lock-out. It's also a modern format with Unicode support that can handle many languages. I've personally been working on a Newton book reader that currently functions as an extension to Firefox (it makes it possible to read Newton books on machines running Mac OS X, Solaris, Linux, Windows XP, and everything else that supports Firefox), but any number of applications are possible.

The big thing that makes a Newton device useful isn't any one of these particular features; it's the combination of them all in a portable package. It's really got all the advantages of a typical tablet computer, but it's packed into a smaller and lighter unit, has instant-on / instant-off capabilities, was designed to even be used with just one hand while standing up, and pretty much never crashes. While these days people tend to think of PDAs as being devices to manage personal information and track meetings, Newton devices are much, much more.

Newton devices have come in many shapes and sizes. Besides the Newton MessagePad and eMate made by Apple and Newton, Inc., there are military-grade units made by Digital Ocean, a all-in-one FAX / copier station made by Siemens, and even other hand-helds made by other companies.

The later model Newton MessagePads stand out, though. Some people who've been in the computer business long enough get the ability to admire particular items not just on the merits of computer science, but on more artistic grounds. It's a little hard to explain, but some devices are more beautiful than others simply based upon the artistry in their design, and I don't mean this in a physical way based upon case mods and the like. It's a bit more like how a mathematician may find a certain formula beautiful, or a physicist may find a certain theorum beautiful. The Newton MessagePad is one such device; a person with enough background and enough exposure to it will invariably come to appreciate its elegance and beauty.

The Worldwide Newton Conference is going on right now in San Francisco as I write this, and even though I can't personally attend I'm actively following new announcments. One of particular interest is that Paul Guyot has gotten his Einstein Newton emulation project running on other hand-held devices. This means that in the future it'll be possible to essentially turn other tablet machines into Newton devices; all that's required is that they be able to run Linux. It remains to be seen though whether these devices on new hardware will ever manage to be as elegant as original Newton devices.