Taking a bite of the Apple

Posted 28 April 1997

WinCE? PalmPilot? Nope! Uncle John has the scoop on the latest, greatest handful of 'tron-shifting goodness you can get. This article is expanded from a note I wrote to my brother in answer to his request for advice on a handheld. He is a Nurse, and is learning to fly, so he was interested in those applications. As far as I can tell, the MessagePad is the perfect solution for him...

I am a dyed in the wool PC user. I wanted to get that straight from the start. I have never been very enamoured with the MacOS, or with machines that I can't fiddle with. But I have to give Apple credit for being an innovator in one market segment if nothing else. They defined, and continue to advance and support the idea of the PDA, or Personal Digital Assistant. I believe that this concept is one that is just slightly ahead of its time right now, but that will become the way people stay connected in the near future. It ties in with the idea born at Xerox PARC of the ubiquitous compuRC of the ubiquitous computing environment, where you are connected to the network all the time, and the computers are more extensions to our minds, and less appliances we use like a toaster. The PDA is the next century's wristwatch. It will be unusual to see someone without one.

Last year, after watching my buddy Robert and my girlfriend Barb enjoy the everyday usefulness of their Apple MessagePad (AKA Newton) 120's, I was so taken with the little boogers that I bought an MP 130 when they hit the street. The 130 had a nice backlit screen, and more memory, making it faster than the 120s, as well as more convenient. I found it suited the needs I had, which were an organizer, a notepad, a names database, Quicken, etc. but I always wanted to hitch it to the 'net and carry it as a personal contact machine. I did use it one time for email through our AOL account, which worked nicely from Orlando, FL while on travel, but that was with Barb's old 2400 bps external modem she got with the 120. I played around with some experimental things to get WWW and email capability, but there were limitations with the TCP/IP stack and the fact that I had only one card slot, so I couldn't use a PC Card modem and my crucial 4MB memory card. So I never did manage to jack it in (sigh). But aside from limited connectivity, I still felt the Newton interface was very convenient for everyday use, the much maligned handwh maligned handwriting recognition was actually pretty good, and with the help of some education, hooking to the desktop PC was not any more difficult than using, say Laplink. I really fell in love with the little guy, and carried him most everywhere. Then Apple, amidst all their problems, managed to release a new Newton, the MessagePad 2000, or "MP2K" among friends. It was leaps and bounds ahead of the 130, according to the buzz on the net, but there were other options...

This happened just slightly after the world got a look at the first generation of Windows CE palmtops, (dubbed HPCs, or Handheld Personal Computers by Microsoft). I admit I looked too. After all, seamless connectivity with Windows 95, internet browsing, and email were built in, they fit in your pocket, and had little versions of Word, Excel, and Windows 95 inside. But the flaws soon showed. The screens and keyboards are tiny, and the brains at Microsoft all but said "hell no!" to any sort of handwriting recognition technology, opting for all entry to be done on the chiclet keyboard. They all have but one card slot (same problem as the MP 130), so you get either a modem or storage space. The one exception, the Phillips Velo 1, has a built in modem, but it is only capable of 19.2 kbps. Wait! this product is brand new in 1996 and has only a 19.2 modem? Yep, I can't explain it either. Well, it either. Well, really I can. The unit uses a "software modem" so it is limited by the speed it's tiny 20 MHz CPU can crank out. I can't imagine trying to run a web browser application like Pocket Internet Explorer while the modem is taking all the CPU cycles the little machine has. HPCs also brag about syncing with the desktop, but when Microsoft introduced Office 97 and the Outlook product, that connectivity broke. Apparently Pocket Word is not compatible with the new Word 97, and the Pocket version of Schedule+ won't talk to the PIM applet in Outlook which replaced Schedule+ on the desktop. Add to all this the most lame backlight you can imagine, (Isn't Microsoft partnered with Timex, who own the really bright, efficient "Indiglo" technology? Why didn't they use that in HPCs?), and you have the best selling bunch of almost good personal computing devices the world has seen. I will hand it to Microsoft, they appear to have "legitimized" the PDA consumer market, even though I suspect using that acronym anywhere near Redmond, WA will get you fired or beat up. Billy G. wants to distance himself from the whole Winpad debacle, as well as the Newton. But I digress...

The MP2K sets a new standard for handhelds, as far as I am concerned, and here is why: very fast, 162 MHz "StrongArm" CPU; 2 Type II PC Card slots; 1/2 VGA screen (480 X 320) at 16 480 X 320) at 16 level grayscale, rotatable to any direction, and lit with a wonderfully bright EL panel; excellent handwritng recognition; audio note capability for when you can't write; bundled web browser and email client; and the largest assortment of freeware and shareware of any platform outside of Windows and Linux. Almost every Newton developer has one or two freeware apps available in addition to the shareware he writes. These are usually little patches and "Power Toy"-like things that extend the OS, and are given freely to the Newton community "for the cause." There is plenty of commercial software out there too, to do anything from filing flight plans, to doing differential GPS, to keeping track of patients and sales contacts, to doing just about anything you can imagine. But the real thrill for me was the first time I connected to my ISP and hit the web. Here I had just over a pound of computer I could jack into the 'net and dig up information and keep in touch while on the road. I used to travel with 10 or more pounds of company laptop, mainly to keep up with my email. Now I can just carry the Newton, and save myself from "carry bag shoulder syndrome" in the airport. That laptop gets heavy!

One criticism I hear often about the Newton is the cost. After all, I paid around $1250 for the unit with keyboard (for when I feel like putting in a ike putting in a lot of data), case, and modem, and WinCE devices top out at under $800. But how much would a decent laptop run me? $2500 or $3000 or more, right? Sure the Newton is a compromise. It can't run CDROMs or play Quake, but I have a desktop machine for that. What I need on the road is a small, lightweight device that I can communicate with, and a way to take notes in meetings and conventions. The MP2K fits that spec perfectly. And as for note taking, I can't imagine typing notes in a meeting on a laptop keyboard, let alone on an HPC. I can't use the laptop while standing in line at the bank, either. Bottom line: for just over $1200, I have a machine that does everything I would need a laptop to do, that weighs about 3 pounds (with kb, etc) but that I can disconnect from the keyboard, put it in a coat pocket, and take handwritten and voice notes with.

Desktop connectivity: The Newton Connection Utilities (included) let you export and import from the desktop, as well as synchronize with Schedule+ and some other programs. I use pocket Quicken on the Newt to keep track of my bank accounts and then sync up with the desktop Quicken once a week or so. There are some shareware applications and some commercial third-party products for hooking into Windows and Mac machines, and even some for Linux. Connecting the Newton with my Windows machine may not be as seamless as it would bess as it would be with a Pilot or WinCE device, but I view the Newton in a different light. Rather than an extension of the desktop, I look on the Newton as a separate computer, that I can network to the desktop when I need to, but that I use for different things. When you look at it that way, I guess networking it to another machine is no different than doing the same with a laptop, which is not always straightforward. I want the handheld to replace the notebook I have been carrying on travel. On the last trip, I had both. I carried the MP 130 around the conference, taking notes as I went, then at night, I hooked it to the laptop, transferred the notes and emailed them to work. Now with the 2K, I can do it all, so I can take notes, then come back to the hotel, hook up the keyboard and clean them up, and expand upon them them as needed, then fire them back to the office.

WinCE devices can supposedly do that, but the tiny keyboard is not as convenient. Microsoft's whole philosophy with these things has not been communication or stand alone apps, so much as carrying a piece of the desktop with you. They are not so much for input, as for transport and offline reading of documents, etc. So the emphasis is not on communication with the net, but with the desktop. I really want to be un-tethered most of the time.

I am going to try out an IRC cho try out an IRC chat client and a telnet client for it as well. Again, for the sake of communication. I may even buy a GPS system for it. Most give you moving map capability. That could be pretty cool to have the Newt strapped to the tankbag, and powered from the bike's system, so I can have a live nav console in front of me on trips. No way to do that with a bigger machine, or a CE unit. The modem I got is cellular ready, so if I get a cell phone, I can just buy the right cable and I'm un-wired to the net anywhere. That would be really cool on motorcycle trips.

The Newton isn't for everybody, but then neither is anything else. Everyone has different missions to accomplish, and their choice of tools should be based on the mission objectives, not on brand loyalty or other contrivance. I catch a lot of ribbing about my love for the little Apple, especially since I tease my Mac-happy friends about their inability to play Quake, Tomb Raider, and some other hot new games. But I take it in stride, knowing I have the perfect tool for the jobs I need done. I never travel without my Newton, my Swiss Army Knife, or a hank of parachute cord.

Copyright 1995, 1996,pyright 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 by John M. Meyer. All rights reserved. The Alien Mind is not associated with any earthly company or its products.

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