From Pen Computing Magazine #19, December 1997

Newton Notes

State of the Newton

©Copyright 1997 David MacNeill

As I sit at the breakfast table with my eMate to write this column, I am overwhelmed by the many recent changes in the world of Newton. First, Newton technology was for sale, sacrificed to save the Macintosh. Then, the Newton Group was spun off into Newton Inc., an independent subsidiary of Apple. As the international community of Newton owners and admirers cheers them on, the group felt the weight of Apple’s bureaucracy lift from their shoulders. Exciting rumors abounded, detailing new form factors ranging from palm size organizers to letter-size pen slates to full-color "bMate" notebooks. Then, suddenly, interim Apple CEO Steve Jobs reassimilated the 150 person Newton Group back into Apple, so as to maximize the potential of the eMate. It seemed that Jobs had gotten the Network Computer religion and wanted to reposition the eMate as a low-cost NC for the educational market. It sounded good, but then it looked as though the handheld MessagePad would be axed from the product line. An outpouring of support directed to <> seemed to have caused Jobs to reconsider the viability of what he had derisively called the "scribble pad." He vowed that he would spare the MessagePad, at least for now. Soon I was deluged with email from the Newton faithful, all wanting to know if their new US$1,000 MP2000 would become a mere conversation piece. (I guess a lot of Newton people just don’t believe Steve Jobs really gives a damn about them.) Then, Newton Group chief honcho Sandy Bennet bowed out without an explanation.

In the midst of all this turmoil and right up until the day before press time, my repeated requests to meet with the Newton Group principles fell on seemingly deaf ears. Various excuses were tendered by their earnest PR people: they were moving out, they were moving back, they were out of town, and so on. By late September I was practically begging to be shown any reason why I should be excited about the future of the Newton platform. From Apple, nothing but polite, mostly content-free phone calls. Then, with only two days left before this issue went to press, I received the terrific MessagePad 2100 (see review on page 88). Now I’m more excited than ever. It is amazing to me that they were able to produce the 2100 and NIE 2.0 while such chaos reigned at Apple, particularly at the Newton Group. They did a great job.

During this period many Newton software developers went into a kind of suspended animation. Some cool shareware, an update or two; with a few exceptions, nothing truly compelling. You can’t blame these talented programmers for adopting a wait-and-see stance. Why slave over code for a platform that might soon evolve into a mere Network Computer, if Jobs and his spooky friend Larry Ellison get their way? What would you do if your company’s business was tied to such a rickety dock?

Now I see that things are returning to normal, with some incredibly great Newton apps just on the horizon. Great stuff.

Recently, I scanned a few thousand messages on the popular newsgroup <comp.sys.newton.misc> and came away more confused than ever. Hidden amongst all the flames, biased opinions from defensive Newton owners, infantile troll attacks, anecdotal "reviews," and the occasional useful bit of information, I sensed a question that no one had bothered to ask: Has the Newton lived up to its potential?

Let’s set the eMate part of this equation aside for a moment and examine the unique position of the MessagePad. Take a quick scan of the dozens of pen computers in our Buyer’s Guide near the end of this magazine. Try to find all the devices that have achieved both a vertical (industry-specific) market and a horizontal (consumer electronics) market presence. Result: the Newton MessagePad. This device has made serious inroads in a variety of specific applications, including sales force automation and route sales, healthcare automation, military computing, forms automation, and many others. The MessagePad is a viable alternative to the many DOS/Windows pen slates costing three or four times as much per unit. MessagePads are everywhere: truck cabs and warehouse floors, construction sites and contractors’ toolboxes, doctors’ lab coats and nurses’ uniforms, and in the briefcases of managers, auditors, and lawyers.

Simultaneously, many tens of thousands of regular folks buy MessagePads and depend on them to keep their life organized and to keep in touch via the Internet. There is a lively mail order market from such vendors as The Newton Store, and a retail market with outlets like the Newton Source chain. The MessagePad is no runaway hit at your local Circuit City, mind you. It could perhaps be compared to the relative success of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recorders, another misunderstood and underestimated consumer electronics technology that floundered in the general marketplace yet found a welcome home with professional musicians, with audiophiles, and in recording studios around the world. In an altered form, DAT is a reliable and popular medium used to back up computers.

So where does this leave us? Is the world of handheld computing simply repeating history, with a single dominant platform marginalizing a superior technology into virtual insignificance?

I believe we will soon see Newton technology come into its own. In the 80’s, after Matsushita’s VHS coalition buried Sony’s superior Betamax format as a viable consumer standard, Sony successfully repositioned their product for professional video use, and Super Beta remains the standard in this industry. The MessagePad as we have known it for the last four years may become a more specialized tool for specific industries, while the eMate and its dependents evolve into something you can buy at Wal-Mart.

Apple’s challenge is to position the Newton as the only true diagonal market computing platform. We no longer will think in terms like "the computer for the rest of us;" rather, we will select the most comfortable and effective tool for the task at hand. Into this coming world of computing diversity, the Newton family is certain to find many niches in which to flourish.

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