An important lesson learnt from the Newton

Tech Life

A real treasure in my archives are numerous issues of MacUser Magazine from the years 1993–1995. It’s good to keep some Mac literature of the last decade, especially things written in a time when the Web was an infant. And it’s surprisingly refreshing to find that, still nowadays, that literature retains some value.

I’ve been reading many of those MacUser issues, and found — along with the sweet savour of nostalgia — quite inspiring bits here and there. Take for example this excerpt from an article by then-editor Caroline Bassett (MacUser March 4, 1994):

The first five minutes with a MessagePad could well be your last. They’re almost certain to display Newton at its least efficient worst. For a start, it won’t recognise your writing. “Bill”, you will shakily write, holding the pad at a ludicrous angle to the light to try and stop the glare. “Burk”, it will sublimely reply. This shouldn’t surprise you because Newton needs to learn your handwriting, and to do that it needs samples. All those Burks and Bulls are Newton’s way of saying “Give us a, break. KO?”. It may not surprise you, but it will annoy you, and it may even undermine you — after all, if a miserable little gadget can’t understand your writing, either it’s stupid, or you are.

Further straining your relationship with the MessagePad, sitting in solitary sales point glory near all the consumer stuff that you know works, is another downer: not only will your MessagePad not understand you; you won’t understand it. All those icons, whose meanings will become self-evident very quickly, will look like blobs and squiggles the first time you see them.

All this is unfair to the MessagePad. Handwriting works, say people who have practised; the MessagePad is simple to navigate around, and the longer you use it the more it exerts a superglue-like grip on the disorganisation of your life. […]

See? When the Newton MessagePad was introduced fifteen years ago, it undoubtedly had appeal, but unfortunately gratification was delayed. Ms Bassett nails this issue perfectly. The Newton MessagePad’s main feature, the most advertised, and what indeed still distinguishes it from all other PDAs — handwriting recognition — was not something you could grasp and enjoy instantly. Moreover, in the first Newton models running NewtonOS 1.x, handwriting recognition was worse and still not optimised as in the later MessagePads running NewtonOS 2.x.

The fact that the main feature of the Newton was disappointing in the Instant Gratification department, coupled with the price of the device (certainly not “for the rest of us”, at least in the 1990s), was ironically the main factor in Newton’s commercial failure. And it is indeed a pity: only by using the Newton on a daily basis, only by growing accustomed to it can one appreciate it fully.

With the iPhone, which is the PDA for the 21st century, Apple didn’t make the same mistake twice. The iPhone is all about instant gratification. iPhone’s icons are wonderfully self-evident. Its interface, too. When it was introduced a year and a half ago, some were disappointed that it lacked handwriting recognition and a stylus. But it was wise from Apple’s part, I think, not to provide and boast that feature. I’m sure handwriting will come along with time and future software updates; in the iPhone Software 2.0 it’s already implemented for Eastern languages. It’s something trickling in the background and I expect we’ll see more Inkwell goodness in the future. The iPhone is already a worldwide success as it is; if a future system-wide implementation of handwriting recognition needs the same training and getting accustomed as it was for the Newton, users will surely tend to be more forgiving than they were 15 years ago.

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