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Newton-Desktop IR:
The GizmoBeam/ActiSys Solution

From Pen Computing #8 February 1996

When I was training Newton users for Apple at the Newton Expo in 1993, I always loved showing my students how to "beam" information to another Newton. I had them pair off and practice sending and receiving. You should have seen them grinning like kids.

Apple's inclusion of an infrared transceiver into the Newton MessagePad was a no-brainer. The technology had been well established in a variety of other devices and had proven itself to be useful. Sharp, the manufacturer and co-designer of the original MessagePad, used its own ASK-IR protocol developed for the Wizard line of pocket organizers in the Newton. Apple, for its part, developed a superset of Sharp's IR protocols when it made beaming an integral part of the communications capabilities of the MessagePad.

As any Newton device owner will tell you, beaming is cool; it just works, no question asked. Beaming is unquestionably a sexy and efficient way to move information between devices. Rather than provide Newton-compatible infrared ports on their computers and printers, Apple initially decided they would leave that to third-party hardware developers.

Apple is to be applauded for the Newton's seamless IR integration. However, by all reports Apple has not been forthcoming with the necessary technical specs needed by developers to take advantage of Apple's proprietary superset and implement it in their own products. In a very silly move, Apple itself neglected to make the IR port on the wildly popular Quadra/Performa 630 series compatible with the Newton's IR port. The recent inclusion of a Newton compatible IR port on the new PowerBooks is, according to some observers, too little, too late. It's hard to justify spending $5000 plus on a new notebook computer purely because it supports IR communications with your Newton device. Most users want to interface their current devices. Users of IrDA-compliant devices computers such as the Hewlett Packard HP-95/100/200LX series, HP OmniBook, and the IBM ThinkPad have also had to wait for infrared compatible computers and peripherals.

Lose the cables
ActiSys, a Silicon Valley-based developer of infrared accessories for Sharp's Wizard and Zaurus palmtops, has released a slick little device for connecting any RS-232C or RS-422 serial device via infrared. The ASK-IR200X cigarette pack-size box that connects via a standard serial cable to a Mac or PC serial port. Once attached, it draws all necessary power from the computer, though it can also run on AA batteries or an optional AC adapter. Point your device at the box and beam from up to one meter away. With two ASK-IR200X units you can connect your computer to your printer or any other serial device. ActiSys also markets the ACT-IR3S which can intelligently switch between sending data to your printer or to your computer. The company also markets a complete line of special cables, driver software, and switching devices for customized configurations of their infrared adapters.
Great. But they won't work with a Newton!

Enter GizmoBeam
Creative Digital Systems, publisher of PDA Developers magazine and several books on Newton software development, has created a developer toolkit to implement IR connectivity between Newton devices and Macintosh applications. By reverse engineering the Apple IR superset, the company has effectively duplicated the superset's functionality for Macs and PCs. Dubbed GizmoBeam, it is a device driver that implements the Apple superset that is embedded in every Newton's ROM. GizmoBeam includes the driver resources and Think C 7.0 sample code. Creative Digital recommends that programmers have some understanding of Macintosh device drivers and the Device Manager in order to use GizmoBeam effectively. There is also a DOS based toolkit called MicroWave that comes as both Borland and Microsoft-compatible linkable libraries. Both GizmoBeam and MicroWave are sold as single-seat SDK and five-user distribution license for a single product, or with additional licensing fees for corporate and commercial distribution of product incorporating their code.

Smelling a solution, I contacted Creative Digital to see if GizmoBeam could work with the ActiSys transceivers. According to a spokesperson, "The ActiSys devices support the Sharp ASK protocol, which is used by Sharp and Newton devices. The Newton also has a superset of the ASK protocol that is used for Newton to Newton beaming. Our drivers support both. Apple never told us their superset (it's proprietary), but we reversed engineered it. ActiSys doesn't have it either, but, since our drivers support the Sharp subset, their device should work just fine."

Beaming with satisfaction
Have you looked at the back of your computer lately? That tangle of cables is getting scary. Infrared is a proven solution to at least part of the mess. I don't want one more dangling serial cable to connect my Newton devices. Programmers interested in developing custom application-level IR solutions for the Newton should look into the GizmoBeam/MicroWave drivers and the transceivers from ActiSys.
- David MacNeill

For more information:
Creative Digital
ActiSys Corp. tel: 510-661-2030

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