From Pen Computing Magazine #12, October 1996

Newton Notes

Size Matters

©Copyright 1996 David MacNeill

There is a popular misconception that we computer magazine editors are privy to the product plans of computer makers. To a limited extent, we are. Because it takes several weeks to print and distribute a magazine, we writers would always be behind if we didn’t get a little advance notice of important product announcements. But as far as getting access to a particular company’s long-range product strategy, we often know about as much as our readers do.

That said, I’m here to confess that I have only conjecture to offer you about the shape of future Newtons. Apple has chosen to keep their Newton platform plans very close to the vest. Could Microsoft’s upcoming release of the Windows-based "Pegasus" PDA have Apple feeling a little inhibited about spilling the beans? Has the latest round of layoffs made everyone at the Newton Group too panicky about their jobs to risk talking to the press? I like to think that those clever designers at Apple have more than one plan for Newton up their sleeve, and hesitate committing to one or the other prematurely. Certainly, availability of the exciting and much-publicized StrongARM RISC chip from DEC, with its quantum jump in performance, changes everything Apple had planned as far as hardware. And, like most big companies, the stunningly rapid rise of the Internet as the driving force behind personal computer sales caught Apple by surprise. This one miscalculation rocked Apple’s competitor General Magic to its core. Many analysts agree that GM can survive only by rapidly reinventing itself as an "Internet company" to keep Magic Cap and TeleScript alive; recent GM press releases indicate this is exactly what they plan to do.

Size matters
It is generally agreed that the next generation of Newtons from Apple Computer will either be much smaller or much larger. These two possibilities raise interesting philosophical questions about the future direction of not only Newton devices but PDAs in general. Do we want small, cheap, pocket-size PDAs with screens big enough to scribble a phone number and a name but little else? Or will we carry around big color screen PDAs that pack enough power and memory to rival notebook computers? What do we want, and how much will we pay for it?

Every time I go out of town, I face the same dilemma: Is the Newton enough, or should I take the PowerBook as well? A MessagePad 130 with an external keyboard, 4MB memory card, 28.8 PC Card modem, retractable phone cable, RJ-11 splitter, AC adapter, spare batteries, NetHopper 2.0, a spreadsheet, a few choice utilities, and the right email and Internet accounts is a surprisingly formidable, yet compact, computer system. Side benefit: you look like one of Tom Cruise’s team on Mission Impossible jacking all of this stuff together. This rig weighs a fraction of a notebook, is a lot less bulky and fragile, and you measure your batteries in days instead of hours.

But a notebook computer it isn’t. Depending on your needs, the Newton rig I’ve described could be all you need. Heck, it’s even got Solitaire! It works for me, but I type slowly, work almost exclusively with text documents under 1000 words, and communicate with everyone via email. When I need to juggle anything more complex, it’s PowerBook time. I want both in one unit.

Newton DocuPad 100
Scenario: Apple builds the fabled slate Newton, the DocuPad 100, selling for US$999. The first model has a backlit active-matrix 640 x 480 portrait display with 256 shades of gray, with an active-matrix color TFT display-equipped model coming a bit later. The DocuPad is thin enough to fit in a FedEx letter envelope, with a rolltop desk style screen protector. A thin, full-size membrane keyboard detaches from the back panel of the unit, and features an IR connection instead of a cable. There is a fold-out brace that serves as either a carry handle or a desk stand, and you can jack a desktop computer into a port to use the display if you like. It can also output video to a computer monitor or television. Memory and storage are no problem due to the DocuPad’s dual Type II/III PCMCIA slots. A built-in microphone can record up to an hour of voice-quality digital audio at a touch of a dedicated button recessed into the front case. Apple’s AnyWire, combination wireless/POTS/cable modem is a popular internal slot option, as is the hands-free cellphone PC Card from Motorola.

For software, we have Netscape’s Newtigator, a full-featured Java-enabled web browser, Claris Emailer for Newton, and LandWare’s NoteWord, an elegant extension of the Newton’s Note Pad that rivals personal computer word processors in functionality, without the bulk.

Suddenly, carrying around a big Newton becomes cool. Conventional clamshell notebooks look clunky and quaint.

Newton MemoPad LC
Scenario: Geekiness goes out of fashion, so all electro-toys must be carefully concealed about your person. Small is more beautiful than ever, so Apple builds the Newton MemoPad LC, a US$199 Palm Pilot killer. The 3x5 inch base unit is essentially a backlit 16 level gray scale display with a StrongARM processor, ROM-based organizer applications, and enough memory to store 500 names and three months worth of data. It can fit in your palm, but has expansion slots on the top and bottom of the unit for expansion modules, including a Sony cellphone with retractable headset, a two-way pager, wired 28.8 modem, a game module with controls, external battery modules, a still video camera, and a 7 inch 480x320 color display module.

Too small to accommodate a conventional PC Card slot, the MemoPad relies on CompactFlash cards that are compatible with digital cameras and newer notebook computers. Application software is either downloaded from the web or a personal computer, or is available for purchase on read-only CompactFlash cards.

Then I woke up
Both devices sound good to me, but I probably wouldn’t buy them both. They overlap just enough to be a problem. Not unlike my MessagePad and my PowerBook, come to think of it. So what is a PDA, then? The next evolution of the personal computer after subnotebooks, or something else altogether? Would you call the DocuPad 100 a computer or a PDA? Computer companies won’t want to cannibalize their computer sales by offering computer-class PDAs for less money, so you might have to buy both to get what you want.

Small may be beautiful, but it isn’t very readable. Big may be better, but the burden of size, weight, and increased fragility work against the goal of taking the thing everywhere. Until we can simply jack these things into our skulls, we will be carrying the utility vs. portability problem around with us in our pockets, backpacks, briefcases, and shoulder bags.

-David MacNeill <>