Monday Oct 22, 2007

Newton, the sequel?

    Here they come again, rumors of Apple delivering a new PDA, ala Newton, per this Slashdot article, Newton II. I've owned a Newton for several years, including my 2000 upgraded to a 2100. Great little PDA, with a dedicated community still going strong. Would a new PDA from Apple do everything the Newton could and can? Doubtful. Would it need to? Probably not. Despite protestations to the contrary, a new Apple PDA would not, and probably should not, need to follow in it's Newton predecessor foot steps. The broader consumer market prefers things that fit in a pocket, and that was just not one of the Newton's design points. Yup, there are people still using Newtons for just that reason. It had a healthy amount of screen real estate, and I admit that at times I find that nice. But I'm amongst the vocal minority, who have pretty specific and demanding wishes for a PDA, which the general populous does not. And if I want a device with a retail life longer than a year, it is going to have to appeal to the unwashed masses.

    As an example of the size direction devices are taking, Palm recently announced their newest entry in the Treo family, the Palm Centro. Kinda cute looking, but clearly not aimed at the aging baby boomer market, as the screen is smaller than previous Treos, as is the keyboard. Another small step in Palm's turtle paced evolution of their products. Many faithful Palm owners continue to wait for the kind of innovation and compelling features that were the usual norm for early Palm devices. I'm one of those still waiting, and looking to replace my stolen backup T3 with another eBay purchased T3.

    Another example of the size matters state of affairs, and a rather sterling example to boot, is the Apple iPhone. I thought about linking to the iPhone, but if you haven't heard of it, and likely seen and played with one already, you're reading my blog from under a rock. This little gem is another case of superb design and engineering from Apple, and another one of their products I am dreaming of getting. I'll probably wait until it gets a few more of the kind of handy little functions I like, or opens up more to someone else adding them, but I expect sooner or later to own one. While it's size is small, Apple still appreciates the need for screen real estate, making the iPhone front mostly screen. It's a small device, I would estimate at least 1/3rd the size of a Newton, and sports a lot of functionality, including some that goes beyond what the Newton could do and some that feels like a step backwards to some.

    The handwriting recognition engine in the Newton was both ridiculed and praised. Early on it got a tarnished reputation, but those who used it regularly, particularly with the later units, swore by it. As for me, by the time I got a Newton, I had been a long time Palm user and well trained in Graffiti, so rather than spend time with the Newton's HWR, I got Palm's Graffiti for the Newton and continued with what I knew. Neither of these are available on the iPhone. It does have a built-in on-screen keyboard, which is a bit different from most and so takes getting used to. Because of the multi-touch technology in use on the iPhone, it requires the use of a finger, and so stylus based text entry technologies like the Newton's HWR and Palm's Graffiti just don't make sense. Is this a step forward or backward?

    So, would an iPhone based PDA from Apple make everyone happy? Would it sport more of the Newton's functionality than the iPhone itself? Is the iTouch that device? time will tell, but for reasons stated above, there will never be a device that satisfies the Newton loyal and the new markets. The real question is whether there is a compromise device that will satisfy enough of a market, without feeling like a compromise device to us pickier types. Either way, I plan to keep my Newton for a long time.

A place where Perley Mears sounds off on topics relevant to his work at Oracle.


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