From Pen Computing Magazine #18, October 1997

Newton Notes


©Copyright 1997 David MacNeill

Joseph Campbell, the great teacher of mythology and comparative religion, described himself as a "maverick" when it came to choosing one particular faith for himself. The only thing that bothered him, he said, was that he would probably never have an experience like that of a saint, since combining a mixture of religious beliefs precludes the deep conviction required for such experiences. He even drew the comparison of using only one particular computer and one set of software to achieve your goals, because to experiment too much causes chaos that distracts you from your work.

Like Joe, I consider becoming a maverickan occupational hazard. You want to experience it all, yet you must focus on your core tools to really accomplish anything important and useful. Perhaps this is the difference between having a job and having a calling.

Let a thousand platforms grow
In his recent keynote at Macword, Steve Jobs said "We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win Microsoft has to lose." This bears repeating in a column focused on the Newton. From your email, I see that many of you harbor great antagonism against Microsoft and their Windows CE platform. There is no need for this. The Newton is for many of us the very definition of what a handheld computer should be. But it’s not the only way to do it. Some people are simply more productive on traditional clamshell/keyboard designs with a pen pointer. It isn’t the kind of device I personally want to spend my life with, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing. The world would be a very boring place if all computers were Macs and all handhelds were Newtons, don’t you think? I like diversity, and I am through with this divisive and destructive good guy/bad guy stuff.

Many times I have felt the temptation to become truly platform-agnostic, like my editor-in-chief Conrad Blickenstorfer is. He has a big old Pentium box at home yet depends on a dual processor PowerMac at work, right next to the Unix server console that handles our websites. At any time you’ll find him carrying a garden-variety Windows 95 notebook, a Newton MessagePad 2000, a PalmPilot, or an HP 320LX or Philips Velo-1 running Windows CE. I don’t know how he does it.

I admit that my eyes have wandered over the fence more than once. But every time I actually try to abandon ship I just can’t seem to gather the will to jump. There are certainly temptations out there. But can what’s on the other side really be all that much better? Choosing a computer is like choosing a mate; when it comes right down to it, all relationships are the same after about six months. The problems and expectations we carry with us don’t go away, and a fresh new user interface isn’t going to change anything.

To be a good journalist, and not just a mouthpiece for a particular brand of machine, it is necessary and desirable to be a maverick. It’s okay to mess about with every kind of computer for intellectual stimulation or just because it’s fun. When I have a job to do, though, I always rely on the tools I know best: Newtons and Macs. They know how to get out of their own way when there is work to be done.

For example, I find it difficult to write using Microsoft Word. It’s just too damned distracting and I can’t concentrate. I can make a Windows 95 computer do whatever I want it to technically; I just haven’t figured out how to make it be a calmly stimulating work environment. A Mac running WordPerfect or a Newton running NewtonWorks is just right for me.

When I first spent some time with a Psion Series 5, I felt the techno-lust welling up. It’s an outstandingly great tool, but it’s not for me. Same with the Hewlett-Packard 320LX Windows CE machine. Terrific execution, solid as a rock, best of class, but it still cramps my style. And forget about writing on a PalmPilot; it’s just too small a screen for me. When they come out with a heads-up display I’ll take another look.

Sometimes my dual responsibilities as Newton columnist and Executive Editor collide head-on. I have even considered abdicating Newton Notes to focus on Pen Computing as a whole, but I can’t do it because I love the Newton too much. If ever a computer needed a friend, it’s now. Newton Inc is a new company with incredible potential, but they are as vulnerable as a new-born puppy. I want to see a good thing grow.

So I’ll tolerate the cognitive dissonance of clashing responsibilities, and I’ll send those alluring new handhelds to the other columnists where they will get some use. I have what I need right here.

Perhaps my wife Leslie said it best: I can look at every menu in town, she told me, as long as I come home to eat.

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