The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

PENN PRINTOUT February 1994 - Volume 10:4

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My man Newton: Six months with a personal digital assistant

By Don Montabana

Just over two years ago John Scully, the former CEO of Apple, introduced the term "personal digital assistant" (PDA) to describe the as-yet-unreleased Newton. This new device, by many accounts, was heralded as the next step in silicon's evolutionary path--a device that would dramatically expand current communications and computing capabilities by including handwriting recognition as well as a new operating system, which would work intelligently both with and for the user.

Last August the first Newton, known as the MessagePad, was released. Had to have one! Or did I? This first release had many of the features that had been promised, but it appeared to fall well short on the communications side. At first glance it looked like a futuristic version of one of the popular personal organizers seen in many pockets and purses, and it offered all the same features. But there was something more to the MessagePad--two distinctive features that really set it apart--Apple claimed that it could not only recognize and digitize my handwritten text, but that it could also intelligently predict what I would be likely to do next.

Was Apple able to deliver all that was promised? From my experience of working daily with a MessagePad for nearly six months, the answer is clearly no. But the concept and the execution hold such promise that despite the current shortcomings, these digital "man Fridays" cannot be ignored.

The satin-black MessagePad weighs in at less than a pound, is no bigger than a paperback novel, and just "feels right" in your hand. Its working surface consists of a reflective LCD display with a usable area of about 3 by 4 inches. Along the bottom of the display there are icons that represent a number of built-in applications: Names, Dates, Extras, Undo, Find, and Assist. The Newton has no keyboard--all data are input with a special pen. This extraordinary piece of engineering is powered by a RISC-based microprocessor, and comes with 4 Mbytes of ROM and 640 Kbytes of RAM. There is no hard disk, so you will probably want to purchase an additional storage card.

Working with the MessagePad

I admit to being intrigued by the claims that not only could the MessagePad recognize primitive shapes such as squares and circles, but it could also recognize my handwriting. Does it work? For simple graphics it works quite well. Hand-written words, however, are another story. I quickly found that Newton's ability to recognize my hand- writing (either cursive or printed) ranged from being either surpris- ingly accurate to close to useless. In fairness, however, you must "train" your Newton both by letting the unit know about your handwriting and letter style preferences and by using a utility that lets Newton practice interpreting your handwriting. After I had entered about 100 words, there was a noticeable, although not dramatic, improvement in handwriting recog-nition. To date I've entered more than 500 practice words and recognition seems to have plateaued at about 60 percent; I'm not sure how much of this improvement was due to Newton "learning" about my handwriting, or how much was due to my being trained to write more "legibly."

Newton defaults to recognizing whole words found in its limited 10,000 word dictionary--plus any words you may have added. As I have added words (names, locations, companies, etc.) that I commonly use, recognition has slowly continued to improve. But 60 percent translation accuracy isn't good enough to be useful in typical note-taking situations where you must distribute your attention between the speaker and your notes. For note taking in meetings, I find that I most commonly use the Newton in its "ink" mode, in which handwriting is captured "as is" in a graphical format. The drawback to this approach currently, however, is that ink mode cannot later be translated into a format that can it be imported into my word processor for editing.

Newton's real magic

The most exciting thing about the MessagePad is Newton Intelligence, one of the cornerstones of the new operating system. It is this aspect of the operating system that interacts transparently across all Newton applications and is the real thrust behind what can make these personal digital assistants successful. The possibilities are nearly boundless. Built into the Newton is an understanding of a number of "request" words (action verbs) such as call, fax, schedule, remember, and meet. If, for example, you enter "dinner Alice Friday," then highlight the request and tap the Assist icon, Newton will bring up a scheduling slip with the next Friday's date and a default time for dinner of 7 PM (Newton assumes that breakfast is at 7 AM, brunch is at 10 AM, lunch is at noon, and dinner is at 7 PM). Newton then looks in your Names file and if it finds only one Alice listed, it will place her full name in the schedule. If more than one Alice were listed in your Names file, then you would be presented with an option to choose the one you wanted. Newton provides modifiable "smart" defaults for repetitive tasks such as scheduling, reminding, communicating, and finding--this anticipation of your next move can make Newton easier to use.

Next steps

There has been a great deal of Newton-bashing in the trade press centered around two issues--the lack of useful handwriting recognition combined with the lack of true wireless capability. Newton clearly falls short on what was marketed as broad communications capabilities. The connectivity delivered (infrared "beaming" and send-only faxing from the Newton to a Mac or to a Windows-based PC) falls short of expectations both because of the slow transfer speeds and because of the required tethering to a phone jack.

But don't sell Newton short. Its introduction has stirred the imagination of a lot of users. What's going to contribute to Newton's success is the eventual attainment of fast and near-flawless handwriting recognition algorithms, something that is still several years away. Until that time, what I would find most useful would be the addition of a translation from ink-to-text option plus the addition of an active- matrix screen for these aging eyes. On the connectivity side of the house, the addition of a PCMCIA card that combined both mass storage and communications capabilities would be welcome. But I expect these will come as this new model for computing gains acceptance.

Turning Newton upside down

A joint venture between IBM and BellSouth, announced last November, is challenging the Newton on a conceptual level. Their PDA product, called Simon, places primary emphasis on wireless communications and secondary emphasis on computing capabilities. Simon has been described as an 18-ounce, souped-up cellular phone equipped with extra computing power. In addition to cellular phone services, it reportedly will allow wireless e-mail, faxing (both send and receive), as well as one-way paging via BellSouth's MobilComm paging system. Notes may be taken and captured in "ink" form as in the Newton, but no handwriting recognition capabilities are included. Calendaring, scheduling, and an auto-dialing address book are also included.

Where will this system play in the PDA arena? Is the wireless component what users want, with useful add-on calendaring and scheduling features built in? The answers to all of these questions will become apparent over the next few years as cellular networks improve and as the related computer technologies evolve.

Is Newton for you?

Should you buy a Newton MessagePad now? Probably not, unless you have a pressing need and are comfortable working with a new technology that has its faults. If you do buy one, buy it for its intelligence and to explore its rudimentary handwriting capability. If wireless communications are a necessity, I, for one, would wait to see what the next generation has in store.

DON MONTABANA is Director of the Computing Resource Center.

Sidebar 1: Built-in applications

The Newton has several built-in applications, including Notepad, Names, Dates, Extras, Undo, Find, and Assist. Three of them are highlighted below.

Notepad. The Notepad is always available, even though it might be "behind" other open applications. I use it routinely to take notes at meetings; it's great for capturing those notes that seem to find their way onto Post-Its and other scraps of paper. Names. This is a convenient address book where you can store important names, addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and related notes; it is analogous to a business card Rolodex.

Dates. The date book consists of a flexible scheduling calendar for appointments, plus a sensibly implemented to-do list, which forwards unfinished items to the current date. The calendar allows you to schedule both single and repeating appointments and meetings; it will even allow you to schedule overlapping and simultaneous appointments.

Sidebar 2: The 50 cent solution

A recent innovation provided by one Newton user has led to a dramatic improvement in Newton's handwriting recognition, bringing it up to a startling 90 percent. His solution was to place an overlay (a quarter inch larger than the Newton screen) cut from a sheet of transparency material (the kind used with an ink-jet printer or on a copy machine; these sheets typically have a smooth and a textured side) over the surface of his Newton's display screen with the textured side up. This supplemental surface apparently provides enough friction to more closely mimic the conditions encountered when writing on paper with a pen. Try it!

Sidebar 3: Newton poetry

The poem below was generated by entering Lewis Carrol's poem Jabberwocky from Alice through the Looking Glass into an Apple Newton. (C) 1993 Robert McNally.


Teas Willis, and the sticky tours
Did gym and Gibbs in the wake.
All mimes were the borrowers,
And the moderate Belgrade.
"Beware the tablespoon my son,
The teeth that bite, the Claus that catch.
Beware the Subjects bird, and shred
The serious Bandwidth!"
He took his Verbal sword in hand:
Long time the monitors fog he sought,
So rested he by the Tumbled tree,
And stood a while in thought.
And as in selfish thought he stood,
The tablespoon, with eyes of Flame,
Came stifling through the trigger wood,
And troubled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and though,
The Verbal blade went thicker shade.
He left it dead, and with its head,
He went gambling back.
"And host Thai slash the tablespoon?
Come to my arms my bearish boy.
Oh various day! Cartoon! Cathay!"
He charted in his joy.
Teas Willis, and the sticky tours
Did gym and Gibbs in the wake.
All mimes were the borrowers,
And the moderate Belgrade.