From Pen Computing Magazine #17, August 1997

Newton Notes

Desert island computing

©Copyright 1997 David MacNeill

I just returned from a week alone on a lake in a 22 foot sailboat. Having just finished the last issue of Pen Computing, I felt the need to clear my mind of such inconceivable things as nanoseconds and megahertz by allowing myself to perceive no measure of time shorter than an afternoon. With a little help from the right tools, the good ship Silly Cloud, and favorable winds, I succeeded. To all of you who emailed me during my retreat with your urgent, end-of-the-world requests and demands, my apologies; I was unobtainably devoid.

Stuff that works
In addition to a supply of basic food, Starbucks coffee, and fresh water, I brought along a bottle of Glenfiddich, an Irish wool fisherman’s sweater, an old pair of Sperry Topsiders, a Myerchin Offshore rigging knife, a battered copy of Thoreau’s Walden, and my MessagePad 2000. All these items performed with the elegance, simplicity, and effectiveness one expects from a time-tested classic. They simply did their jobs without getting in the way. The MessagePad 2000 managed to be futuristically high-tech without clashing with the low-tech sailing aesthetic I was seeking. I can’t think of another computer that could have done this.

Now that I’m home, I find myself thinking about how emerging technologies--handheld computers, network computers, Internet push content--will impact the individual computer user.

I’m afraid it’s terminal
I have big problems with network computers, or NCs. It has been said many times before, by greater wits than I: NCs are the Revenge of the Mainframe Guys. They are still mad about you and I sneaking our personal Macs and PCs into the office so we could get some real work done, our way. Nobody likes to wait in line, and that is exactly what you are doing when you a use network-centric device. When I listen to the reasoned arguments for Ellison’s NCs and Microsoft’s "zero administration" NetPCs, with their lack of local storage of data and applications, I can’t help but feel that I am being asked to give up control of my work to some arrogant 22 year-old Unix weenie who is more into games than girls. How on Earth is such an individual supposed to fathom the importance of the information needs and data-life of a 40 year old professional writer? Why should I have to trust and depend on this person at all? I became fascinated with computers precisely because they were personal; if mainframes and terminals were all that were available to me I probably would have opened a scuba shop in Bermuda and never looked back.

I like my Power Mac graphics workstation, my PowerBook 1400c and my MessagePad 2000 just fine, thank you. I’m a big boy and can be trusted with such things as backing up my data, updating my applications, and entering IP addresses. I know how to deal with the occasional crash, how to recover lost files, and how to optimize my systems for efficiency and reliability. All hard-won knowledge, to be sure, but it’s worth it to be the captain of my own computers.

It is generally accepted that the force that drives the computer market is not the truly personal computer but the "corporate desktop." Why else, for example, do we have so much glitzy presentation software and hardware shoved down our throats? I am not a traveling salesman and don’t want to carry that baggage in the form of bloated, feature-heavy software and an expensive, battery devouring 12 inch color TFT display and sub-woofers.

I admit that, except when I am editing the Focus section of Pen Computing, I don’t spend much time thinking about the corporate computer user. I am interested only in computing devices designed for individual use: simple, powerful, and appropriately scaled. Like Thoreau, I believe that if you empower and liberate the individual you will get a better society. In the computer realm, unfortunately, I see precious little of this philosophy. We need to design great tools for people, not consumers; cultures instead of markets. I want to see our efforts serve the needs of life instead of macho executive pissing contests over the almighty bottom line.

Push comes to shove
I’ve seen PointCast and I’ve seen Microsoft’s Active Desktop. I don’t need a machine with a net-addicted, hyperactive desktop. I cannot stand to be subjected to the "staccato signals of constant information," as Paul Simon sang, consisting mostly of depressing news updates of distant skirmishes among people with whom I have nothing in common, sports scores of professional teams peopled entirely of mercenary millionaires, and blaring product advertising carefully designed to make me dissatisfied with what I already have. I have work to do.

None for me, thanks. I’ll take a quiet, unobtrusive, thought-conductor with no cheesy entertainment value. Computers are here to relieve us from drudgery, not to force-feed us advertising masquerading as news. If I wanted that I could just watch TV.

Oxymoron: Handheld Desktop
There has certainly never been a more exciting time to be involved in the world of handheld computers; with the entry of Microsoft the buzz of public interest has grown substantially in a matter of months. No less significant is the dramatic maturation of Apple’s Newton OS platform, along with the trendsetting MessagePad 2000 and eMate 300 entering the market to rave reviews and ravenous demand. Yep, things are looking good, and not a day goes by without some interesting new development to quicken the pulse of an already hypertensive market.

Since my first pre-release Newton MessagePad, I have always considered these devices to be information islands rather than extensions of my desktop computer. I capture, maintain, and access the kind of data I found cumbersome to work with on a personal computer. That’s why I use the term intimate computing when talking about Newtons and similar devices. As one of my former Newton Training teammates used to say, I’d sooner share my toothbrush than my Newton.

For example, I see no reason to maintain a personal information manager (PIM) on both my Newton and my desktop computer. I use the handheld’s PIM and keep it with me all the time. Why would I need to synchronize with a desktop version? The only kind of information I routinely ferry between island and mainland is text, which I find easiest to accomplish by emailing it to myself. All the submissions we receive at Pen Computing from our regular contributors and from freelancers arrive in my Claris Emailer inbox, so why not my stuff? Keeps them all in one place, date stamped, searchable, portable, and available.

The original PDA concept was a good one, and as an active participant in the experiment from its genesis I can tell you that it most definitely works for me. When I want the kind of document-centric computer that uses the desktop metaphor, I reach for my PowerBook. Apple could have easily made a shrunken head of a Mac OS desktop on a Newton-size device; they didn’t do it because they realized early on that the conventional desktop metaphor would not scale down gracefully.

I tried living with a Windows CE device for a month, setting my Newton aside, to see if Microsoft’s new mini-Windows would work for me. I even bought a Pentium notebook running Windows 95 and dutifully synchronized. I made it less than two weeks. Over time, I simply could not live with it. As clever and useful as it is for some people, I found Windows CE to be a cramped and cluttered space that is too confining --both physically and spiritually--for me to ever feel comfortable in. To me, Windows CE’s document-centric design makes little sense on a handheld computer.

MessagePad in a bottle
It all comes down to this: Which computer would you take with you to a desert island? Do you think in documents or notes? Take a look in your wallet or handbag and take stock of the kinds of information you store there. Now imagine what that stuff would look like if you had a machine to capture, carry, and file it for you.

Microsoft wants to extend their hegemony over personal computing by extending their control of the desktop into your handheld computer. This was a predictable move to leverage their main profit source. They conducted many thousands of hours of user testing to make sure they had exactly what people wanted in a handheld device. Result: Windows CE, which demands (a) a computer running Windows 95, (b) Microsoft Office 95, and (c) nothing that deviates from this "norm," because nothing else will work with Windows CE.

Are we to believe that people actually prefer to have no choices beyond Microsoft products? You can get any results you desire if you ask the right questions.

- David MacNeill <> is executive editor of Pen Computing Magazine. Newton Notes™ has been in continuous publication since the release of the Newton in 1993.