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The Apple Newton MessagePad Review

[Editor’s note: This is part 1 of Walt’s review of the Apple Newton MessagePad that was originally published in The Wall Street Journal in August, 1993.]


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Apple Computer’s Newton handheld “personal digital assistant” is an ingenious electronic device unlike any other I’ve used. It represents an ambitious, and largely successful, attempt to remake the way people use a computer so that organizing and communicating small bits of information — notes, appointments, names and addresses — becomes easier and more natural.

After two weeks of working with a Newton every day, I regard it as the first pen-based computer that works really well, partly because it features by far the best handwriting recognition I have ever seen in any computer (it even handles cursive script.) It can send faxes and electronic mail and is the first computer I’ve seen that routinely accepts commands (like “meet Don Friday 3 p.m.”) in plain English. I would describe it as a sort of “post-PC” device that streamlines data entry, links all your information in intelligent ways, and actually adapts to your handwriting and work habits over time.

Yet, the first Newton model, the $699 MessagePad, falls short of the expectations raised by Apple’s relentless advance publicity, mainly because many of the sexy communications features are missing from the basic package, will cost extra, and won’t be available for months at a minimum. And the handwriting recognition, while startlingly good for a machine, is probably still a bit too imperfect to lure most people from pen and paper.

For those reasons, I think this first in a planned series of Newton products is too expensive when fully equipped and a bit too exotic to appeal to mainstream business people. It’s likely to attract mainly those who love new technology or who already rely on a portable computer or pocket electronic organizer.

This week, I’ll describe the MessagePad and review its handwriting recognition. In next week’s column, I’ll explain Newton’s pathbreaking “intelligent assistant” system, which attempts to anticipate users’ commands for entering and transmitting information. This latter technology is expected to show up in a whole bunch of devices that will bear the Newton logo, including small computers, telephones and other products from Apple and from other companies which have licensed the Newton software. Sharp, whose factories build the Apple product, will shortly introduce its own nerarly-identical Newton called the Expert Pad.

The sleek, gray-green MessagePad packs a lot of power into a one-pound package about the size of a videotape, but thinner. It fits in a man’s coat pocket or a modest-sized purse, and has a well-designed, high quality feel. It runs on four standard AAA alkaline batteries, which Apple claims will last for up to two weeks of normal, intermittent use. It can also use rechargeable battery packs or an AC adaptor.

There’s a built-in notepad, appointment book and address book. You enter data by writing on a small screen with a plain plastic stylus. There’s no cramped keyboard to wrestle with, as on other organizer devices.

But the base $699 unit contains no communications features, except an infrared transmitter that lets you “beam” data to or from another Newton or a Sharp Wizard. A basic, clunky, external fax modem costs another $100 and software and cables for linking up to a Macintosh or Windows-compatible PC add another $149, for a total of $949 — the minimum useful package, in my view. Adding an extra memory card, or other pop-in modules that let the unit receive pages, or run add-on programs, boosts the price by hundreds more. With accessories like the battery pack and AC adaptor, the whole thing can run to nearly $1500.

Some features aren’t ready yet at any price. A wireless modem isn’t likely for several months, and will probably cost almost as much as a basic MessagePad. Apple doesn’t expect to have the email network for Newton up and running til late this year.

But the MessagePad shines at deciphering handwriting. The reason is that the Newton recognition system, mostly developed by a group of ex-Soviet scientists, is based on words, not pen strokes. The device ships with a list of 10,000 words it recognizes, and you add others as you go along, so Newton isn’t likely to goof up the same word twice.

A year ago, using a leading pen computer, I tried to enter the phrase: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s still no match for the keyboard.” It came out reading: “Re pen A bemiqn tier Ran ? swoQ, butit’s SAll nou match f R keyboard.” Newton’s translation was vastly better: “The pen may be Mightily than The Sword, but it’s still no match for the keyboard.”

Three errors in a sentence are still too many, but at least Newton makes correcting mistakes far easier than other popular systems. In last year’s test the corrections required mastering complex editing gestures, and painstakingly rewriting words between the lines of a special grid. Newton fixed the erroneous capital letters in the words “The” and “Sword” by simply presenting me with a list of alternatives and letting me tap on the uncapitalized versions I found there. I changed “Mightily” to “mightier” by tapping out the proper spelling on a popup representation of a keyboard and Newton then “learned” it.

All in all, this first Newton reminds me of the first Macintosh model, introduced in 1984. It was overpriced and underpowered, yet it pioneered a new, easier way of interacting with a PC that has by now sold 10 million Macs and conquered the much larger IBM-compatible market through Microsoft’s Macintosh-like Windows software. Newton stands a chance of having its own big impact, if Apple handles it right.

[Editor’s note: This is part 2 of Walt’s review of the Apple Newton MessagePad that was originally published in The Wall Street Journal in August, 1993.]

It’s too early to know whether Apple Computer ‘s first Newton handheld computer model, the $699 MessagePad, will be a hit. But it’s already clear that the Newton software system it contains, even in its first incarnation, is an important step forward in making computers adapt to the needs of their human users, rather than the other way around.

This software technology, which Apple calls “intelligent assistance,” will be incorporated in a variety of additional Newton devices the company is developing, some smaller and cheaper than the MessagePad, others larger and costlier. Apple may ship a second Newton model even before the end of this year.

In addition, Apple has licensed the Newton software to a variety of other companies which will be building it into their own products — including “smart” phones with screens that feature the pen-based Newton software. Japan’s Sharp and Panasonic plan product lines bearing the Newton logo, as does Motorola and Germany’s Siemens.

In a regular computer users must launch programs, such as word processors or calendar software, in order to enter data and produce documents. The information created in one program isn’t easily linked to that produced by another. Printing, faxing and the sending of electronic mail (if available) are usually separate functions controlled by separate software. And everything requires special computer commands.

Newton’s software designers scrapped that approach. The little machine’s main application, the Notepad — a combination mini-word processor and drawing program — is always “open” and ready for use. It presents the user with an endlessly scrolling blank, lined notepad that stores words or pictures drawn on it with a plastic stylus. The machine’s surprisingly good handwriting recognition system can be used to turn written notes into printed text. The other two built-in programs, a calendar for entering appointments and reminders and an address book, pop up with a tap of the pen.

The most exciting part of the Newton software, however, is that it understands commands written on the screen in English, and then carries out those commands in a way that attempts to anticipate your intentions. This is possible because the underlying software is able to link all the information you enter, of whatever type, invisibly and without user intervention.

The other day I wrote a brief note on my Newton to a friend named David. At the end of the note I wrote “fax to David,” and tapped on a little light bulb symbol labeled “Assist” at the bottom of the screen. Newton did the rest. It launched its built-in faxing program, and instantly searched my address book for a “David.” Newton found him, and prepared a fax of the note I’d written, complete with his full name and fax phone number. The machine then asked if it had anticipated my intentions correctly, I said OK, and the fax was placed in an “outbox” for sending.

I next wrote “lunch with Bob Thurs at Ritz,” and pressed the light bulb symbol again. Newton found all the people named “Bob” and the one restaurant named “Ritz” in my address book. It then opened its calendar program, found the next Thursday, and proposed to enter a lunch date at noon that day at Ritz with whichever Bob I picked from a list it presented. I said OK, and Newton made the calendar entry, with Bob’s full name. The machine was smart enough to know that “lunch” is often at noon. If I’d written “dinner” it would have guessed I meant a meal at 7 p.m.

This “intelligent” anticipation of requests, based on the interpretation of plain-English commands, makes standard “user-friendly” computing pale by comparison. And it is one way in which Newton is better than a paper datebook. What’s more, the device gets “smarter” the longer you own it. Not only does it learn to recognize your handwriting, but as your address book grows in size, it creates more and more links, so that you can write commands involving more and more names and places.

Despite all this wizardry, I’ve found a number of glitches and bugs in Newton in the three weeks I’ve been using it. For instance, the thing prints great-looking full-sized pages — but it takes two tries every time, at least on my printer. It faxes fine to fax machines, but not to some fax modems and software used on many Macs.

More seriously, my Newton dies, stops translating handwriting, or won’t turn on under certain conditions — such as when you disconnect the power adapter without first turning the device off, or when you’re using alkaline batteries that are running low. The flaky behavior, Apple says, is caused by the way the software and the electrical system interact. Fortunately, there’s an easy workaround: you just press a little reset button hidden under the battery cover. This doesn’t erase any of your data. Still, it’s a scary, annoying bug and Apple says it will fix it in a revised version of the software now being written.

Newton also could be even smarter. For instance, when you’re entering a new name in the address book, it ought to save you some writing by popping up a list of the names of states, and of cities and companies you’ve already used in other entries.

The first Newton model is costly (up to $1500 with all the options); its handwriting recognition, while the best ever in a computer, still needs improving; and the machine has some bugs and glitches. But the underlying intelligence of its software will likely make devices with the Newton logo important products in the years to come.

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