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ATPM 2.11
November 1996






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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

So Goes Newton, So Goes Apple

It's been a while since we saw anything completely new come out of Apple's famous research and development centers. Most of the recent releases have simply been machines with faster processors, and software with bug fixes. After all, even the PowerBook 1400 cannot be considered industry-leading innovation; as MacWeek correctly pointed out, it is the PowerBook Apple should have released last year. However, Apple just introduced two revolutionary products that will provide some ammunition for those of us who consider Apple to be an industry leader. I am referring of course, to the Newton MessagePad 2000 and the eMate 300. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to try either of these in person, but all the spec sheets and articles I've read indicate that they should be winners.

The MessagePad 2000

With its new StrongARM processor, the MessagePad 2000 should be about half a dozen times faster than it's predecessor, the MessagePad 130. Now, you might think that speed isn't necessary for a palmtop. After all, the old Newtons were quick, and they aren't expected to do too much heavy calculating anyway. In this case though, every MHz of processing power makes a difference. Newton OS 2.0 quieted those who criticized the accuracy of the Newton's handwriting recognition. The faster processor will quiet those who found it too slow. Furthermore, it will make possible several technologies that have yet to be seen in a palmtop, such as speech synthesis, and even voice recognition. The StrongARM, coupled with the larger screen should make the Newton an even more useful product than it already is.

Unfortunately, it will take a while for people to realize how powerful Apple's new PDAs really are. The company has been criticized for not marketing its products well enough. The original Newton was, thanks to John Sculley, one of Apple's most successfully advertised products. Just about everyone I knew at the time had heard of Newton before it was even released. When I finally saw one at MacWorld, I was surprised and disappointed at the same time. The Newton was one of the most amazing and promising products I'd ever seen, but it just wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

In typical Apple-bashing style, the press made the Newton - and all it stood for - sound like a joke. I think they set the entire PDA market back a year by coloring the public's perception of how useful handheld computers actually were. The MessagePad 2000 doesn't contain any of the original's shortcomings, but it will still take a long time for people to realize this. If Apple had waited until this year to announce its Newton plans, and introduced the MessagePad 2000 as its first handheld, public perception would be radically different.

Of course, it doesn't do any good to realize this in hindsight, so Apple needs to do what it can to make the best of the situation. Perhaps it should stop calling the Newton a PDA, or tell the world that the Newton is a Network Computer. After all, it can browse the web, check e-mail, and do all the other things that everyone is expecting of NC's. During their times of financial trouble, many people suggested that Apple drop or sell the Newton division. I'm glad they didn't, but they also need to decide what they want the Newton to be. The Newton is much more than an organizer, and contact manager, and it's also much more than a Network Computer. It's a versatile tool, and people need to realize that.

The eMate 300

I applaud Apple for creating the eMate 300, a clamshell version of the MessagePad aimed at the education market, with a keyboard. There are many schools who want units in the under $1000 price range that are reliable and need little maintenance. But by making education the first channel for the eMate's market, Apple is once again introducing a stereotype into the public. The eMate is underpowered compared to the MessagePad 2000, presumably to keep the price down. How much trouble would it have been to make a faster version for the business market? By making the *only* eMate a slow machine for the education market, Apple risks the public thinking that *all* eMates are underpowered children's toys.

The eMate does not ship with a web browser - not because it can't run one, but because Apple doesn't think educators want their students surfing the web without supervision. This is a horrible oversight. Schools are clamoring to get their students access to web browsers, and it's far easier to prevent a built-in browser from being used than it is to add a browser later. I'm sure that many teachers will not realize that the eMate can function as a Network Computer because it doesn't come with the software. Wouldn't it have been easier to make it "web-ready" and to have a option to password protect the browser software?

History Repeats Itself

The Newton seems to be following in the steps of the Macintosh line. It started off as revolutionary, and expensive, but is now both a good deal, and the leader in its class. Apple's interface group clearly spent a lot of time refining Newton OS, and the result is a clean and quick interface that is probably more intuitive than Mac OS. Microsoft, noticing the potential of the PDA market announced that it was working on Windows CE, a version of its popular operating system that will run on handheld computers (though I believe it will require a keyboard). However, at least in the beginning, it will not be able to compete with Newton OS because will take up too much memory and screen space.

The Newton story is in many ways like the Mac story of the 1980s. The Newton was the first of its kind to get out the door, and is recognized as being the best in its market, but price, quirks, and marketing prevented it from being what it could have been. Now, there is more competition in the market that Apple created, and it is no longer clear whether a superior product is enough to overcome the initial public perception of the Newton as a toy. In any event, I think the success (or failure) of the Newton will dictate how well Apple does in general. Both the new Newtons and the new PowerBooks are in short supply. If Apple can get its Newton marketing and production acts together, it will be a good indication of how well it can focus its Mac efforts. As always, the technology is there; it's just a question of getting it into the publics' hands - and minds.

"The Personal Computing Paradigm" is ©1996 by Michael Tsai, [apple graphic]

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