A hands-on assessment of Apple’s Newton MessagePad

Harry McCracken has written an interesting Newton retrospective. I don’t agree with it fully, but it’s one of the most informed and well-written pieces on the Newton to appear recently, and definitely worth a read.

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06 Jun, 2012

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On the 20th anniversary of the Newton’s introduction, Harry McCracken has written Apple’s Newton MessagePad PDA at Twenty for TIME, and as a long-time Newton user, I was quite pleased to read an informed, thorough article on the Newton for once. And I appreciate that McCracken — unlike many other who have dismissed the Newton without even trying one properly — actually purchased one second-hand and tried to use it.

Every Newton-related article I’ve read so far, at a certain point, has to propose a theory on how and why the Newton failed. McCracken’s no different, but at least it does so with the professionalism of someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. McCracken is way above certain ‘tech bloggers’ whose knowledge of now-obsoleted products and technologies is limited to a couple of Wikipedia pages.

Still, towards the end of the article (on page 3), there are passages that, instead of making me nod in agreement, made me stop and think and go into my hmmm, let’s see mode.

Along the way, the Newton handwriting recognition got much, much better. That didn’t help enough — which may be a sign that consumers simply aren’t as interested in taking handwritten notes on an electronic device as Apple expected.

[…]

Even back in the 1990s, I remember becoming convinced that Apple was energetically pushing the Newton in the wrong direction. Sheer technological potency wasn’t the problem: Compared to the first model, the final Newton PDA, 1997′s MessagePad 2100, had fifteen times the clockspeed, 90 percent more pixels and more than twelve times as much RAM. It also had vastly better software.

But the 2100 moved the Newton even deeper into tweener territory. It was taller, wider and thicker than the H1000, resulting in an even less pocketable gadget. It started at $1000; the H1000 had been $699. And it still didn’t come standard with the hardware and software you needed to exchange data with a PC.

I believe this last sentence to be incorrect. As you can read on this MessagePad 2000 box, the hardware and software needed to exchange data with a computer were indeed included. But apart from this, McCracken here seems to hint at two reasons that led to the Newton’s failure: 1) handwriting recognition as being perhaps not what customers were really interested in, and 2) bulk. I’m not entirely convinced about that. More on this later.

After Palm’s big-time partners, Radio Shack and Casio, bailed on the Zoomer II, the company retrenched. With almost no resources, it got to work on a PDA that was far smaller, simpler and cheaper than the Zoomer. The new gadget used Graffiti instead of conventional handwriting recognition, and it came with a docking station and software that made syncing calendar and contacts with a PC a breeze.

Palm called its creation the… Taxi. But only briefly. When that moniker turned out to have trademark problems, the company changed the name to Pilot, shortly before the first units went on sale in 1996. Starting at just $299, the Palm Pilot became the phenomenon that the Newton was supposed to be but never was.

Here we have reasons 3) and 4) — poor syncing capabilities (better handled by the Palm Pilot later) and cost.

My observations regarding these four reasons are as follows:

1. Handwriting recognition

I don’t think that using a stylus as a means of inputting text is unappealing per se. The problem of the Newton wasn’t the handwriting recognition itself, at least from NewtonOS 2.x on. After more than 10 years of use, a theory I have been working on is that one major factor crippling the Newton’s success was the lack of instant gratification overall. Here’s what I wrote four years ago in a piece called An important lesson learnt from the Newton:

When the Newton MessagePad was introduced fifteen years ago, it undoubtedly had appeal, but unfortunately gratification was delayed. […] 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.

Handwriting recognition on the later Newtons is really good, but to achieve a decent degree of smoothness in the process, patience and a bit of training are required. Not that the Newton wasn’t/isn’t an intuitive device, but it definitely requires some exploring and some warming up to it to get the most rewarding experience.

2. Bulk

A lot of people talking about the Newton have mentioned its size and bulk as a problematic feature, and a cause of its failure, but in my opinion it’s a false problem. When you have a great device, size doesn’t matter that much. So, the Newton MessagePads were not pocketable. Pocketability is desirable in a device, but it’s not all. The iPad isn’t pocketable either and this doesn’t seem to be affecting its success.

The objection is just round the corner: But have you seen how successful the Palm Pilot line was? And those devices were small, light and pocketable indeed. True, but the Palm Pilot didn’t succeed just because it was small. It succeeded mostly because it was drastically cheaper, because it was simpler, because it mostly focused on meeting a few specific needs instead of being presented as a full-blown handheld computer. (At the time, I remember looking at Newtons, Palm devices and similar ‘personal digital assistants’ in electronics stores, and my first impression is that the Newton felt more like a small computer, giving more freedom of movement to the user, while the Pilot and similar devices felt more like glorified data banks and electronic agendas).

I’ve never had problems with the size, bulk or weight of my Newtons. My Original MessagePad and MessagePad 2100 weigh around 425 and 650 grams respectively. I never have them both with me, but even if I had, it’d be like carrying a couple of paperback books. When I’m not carrying my Newton mobile office, generally either MessagePad fits in a compartment of my suitcase or backpack. When I want to travel light, the 2100 fits perfectly in a small messenger bag I have. Pocketability is a bit overrated, I think, and I’m not saying this because my habits are different. I just look around and see students with bags or backpacks, businesspeople with suitcases or more stylish bags or backpacks. Very rarely have I seen a geek without some kind of bag or similar accessory. Ironically, when I go to a Starbucks, I often see people loaded with crap: laptops, notebooks, iPads, Kindles, iPhones, cameras… These are all devices with overlapping functions and features, but they stuff them in their bags anyway. (An experienced Newton user doesn’t need a pen and a paper notebook. A Newton user who is also a writer, like me, sometimes doesn’t even need a laptop either). We talk a lot about minimalism online, but out there it’s still a different story. Bulk is often frowned upon on paper, then, at the end of the day, it all goes in the bag.

3. Syncing capabilities

The Palm Pilot got a few, crucial things right. McCracken makes the perfect example: syncing calendar and contacts with a PC was certainly more straightforward than on the Newton. Again, as a long-time Newton user, I have the feeling that the Newton and the Palm Pilot demonstrated two very different perspectives towards data syncing. The Newton was conceived as a more independent device. You didn’t really need to transfer contacts and calendars on a computer, because, in the Newton philosophy, you dealt with those things on the Newton itself. What you really needed to do were backups of the data stored on the Newton, exchange files created with Works (the Newton’s ‘office suite’) and install packages, and that is what the Newton Connection Utilities did (NCU is the software needed in order to move information between the computer and your Newton).

Some time ago I wanted to take a closer look to a Palm Pilot of that era. My friend Brando kindly donated an IBM WorkPad (take a look at my Flickr set), which is a rebadged Palm IIIx device introduced in 1999. He sent it to me complete with docking station, so that it can be connected serially to a PC. It’s indeed a nice little device, but as a Newton user, something that struck me as a big shortcoming in this device was that data isn’t stored permanently. If you’re not careful and let the two AAA batteries run out, when you put fresh ones and restart the device, you’re back to its factory settings and you lose everything you’ve been adding to it (both data and applications). Sure, you connect it to the PC, you try a sync, and if your backup is up-to-date maybe you get everything back, but it’s hardly practical and shows Palm’s different approach in creating these devices, more like satellites to a computer, more ancillary than a Newton.

4. Cost

I really think cost is one of the most influential factors in the Newton’s failure to achieve commercial success. It was simply too expensive. Coupled with the other factor I mentioned before — delayed gratification — you got impatient users who quickly dismissed the Newton as ‘more trouble than it’s worth’. At that cost (the Original MessagePad’s initial price was $700 in 1993; the more capable MessagePad 2000/2100 cost $950 in 1997) the least users expected was instant gratification and a very gentle learning curve; the gratification the Newton could deliver wasn’t instant enough, and the learning curve not gentle enough. Look at the iPhone and iPad today: people are willing to invest their money because iOS devices are easy to use and instantly pleasing right out of the box.

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