Macworld Magazine, January 1994

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy


Not Ready for Prime Time

Newton will be great—if it lives down its beginnings


For almost a month now I have been Newtonized, carrying about the sleek one-pound MessagePad that seems to have been dropped into our time from the future—something the Terminator mistakenly packed in his luggage. I have scribbled notes on it during an interview at a fancy hotel room, recorded a business contact’s phone number during a transatlantic flight, and used it to schedule a play date for my three-year-old. It has gotten used to me, and I have gotten used to it. And after all this time, I am left not with a conclusion but a question—the Mystery of Newton, if you will: How can something so great be so useless?


Looking back on my experience, it was clear that trouble was afoot from the very start. The Newton MessagePad was officially introduced in early August 1993, at Boston’s Symphony Hall. John Sculley, Apple’s dethroned king, proclaimed Newton “a product vision that will empower the rest of us.” The event was designed to stir up a frenzy within the universe of gadget freaks and Macintosh Moonies, and that it did. The next day, lines were long at the few Macworld Expo booths trading in MessagePads. I stood in one line just to soak up the Zeitgeist. It was a partylike atmosphere, at least until someone was caught trying to cut in line, at which point the interloper was viciously pummelled by an outraged cadre of early adopters.


Yet even as the first few units went out the door, there were intimations of trouble. At the Newton rollout there were literally dozens of software and hardware developers showing demos of products that would work with the Newton—sometime. The vapor was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. I rushed from booth to booth, attempting in vain to figure out just what it was that the basic product did. But it was difficult to get hold of an actual Newton for extensive testing. I figured that when I saw an advertisement for the Newton, all would be explained. But when I saw the ad, I was even more mystified. It was full of cryptic one-sentence paragraphs with a sort of “Newton is you, Newton is me” message. It might have been written by the lyricist for Barney the Dinosaur.






Driver's Ed

Finally, I was granted a loaner unit. But by that time Apple was so paranoid about criticism that it was forcing electronic ink-stained wretches like myself to submit to a 90-minute training session. The irony was delicious—here’s a product supposedly easier to use than any personal computer, and Apple thinks that professional computer users shouldn’t go near it without driver’s ed!


The training, as it turned out, was helpful. The Newton is not trivial, and it presents an entirely new collection of tricks and icons. Although it does not take long to grasp the basics, I could see how a Newton MessagePad owner not inclined to read manuals might not figure out for days that, for example, holding the pen down at the beginning of the word generates something that looks like an inkblot, and if you extend the blot over the word, you have “selected” it, and can drag it somewhere else on the notepad.


It was during this session that I realized how nifty the Newton really is. Though I never did get accustomed to the annoying screen glare (which might be useful for applying makeup but makes it hard to read the otherwise sharp liquid crystal display), I found the system itself to be quite elegant. With almost no practice, I mastered the little taps you make on the screen that work like mouse-clicks on the Mac. With the Mac-like menus, it’s simple to move from the default application—the notepad—to the other two main built-in functions, the scheduler and the name list. All in all, I appreciated the talent and virtuosity that went into the operating system.


And then there was the handwriting recognition. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. My scrawl is so illegible that I often can’t make it out. Yet to my surprise, the Newton did a credible job of deciphering most of my words. It was clear that Apple had performed a job of serious wizardry by producing some state-of-the-art handwriting recognition in such a small package. So I won’t mock its efforts by adding to the cheap shots proliferating in the media about the weird interpretations the Newton is likely to make of one’s words. (Okay, one cheap shot. When I began to write, “These are the times that try men’s souls” the Newton printed “What Arute Odd Carolyn 4.”)


The Newton is a case where the best available is not good enough. You may recall Samuel Johnson’s comment concerning a dog walking on its hind legs. “It is not done well,” said he, “but you are surprised to find it done at all.” As soon as my training session was over, I spent several hours playing with the MessagePad, marvelling at how wonderful it was—the dog could dance! Then I took it out in the real world. And it was like Dr. Johnson’s dog auditioning for the Bolshoi Ballet.


Typical instance: I meet someone who wants to give me his phone number. “Don’t give me a card!” I say—“I’ve got this!” I whip out my Newton. I tap the screen on the proper icon to access the Names section, then try to write the name. I miss by a single letter, which on the Newton is the worst thing you can do. Attempting to correct it often results in the Newton’s misreading the correction as a new letter. Then I attempt to “scrub” the two wrong letters and the Newton reads my scrub as a new shape. I finally scrub the whole word—resulting in the satisfying puff of smoke that signifies deletion—and start over. And my new friend is looking at me with something akin to pity.


Okay, so you can’t really use the Newton to write on the fly. But what you can do is turn off the handwriting recognition and use so-called digital ink to record your actual scrawl. So I took the MessagePad along to an interview in lieu of a real notepad. I began recording my source’s quotations and all was well—for about three minutes. Then the Newton clammed up on me. After a brief pause, a message came up on the screen: “The note could not be changed. (The note has too many items. Start a new note by drawing a horizontal line across the notepad.)”


So I drew a horizontal line to start a new note, one of the Newton’s less reliable tricks. I frantically tried three times to begin a new entry. Meanwhile, my source, oblivious to this crisis of notation, babbled on. Finally I opened up a new note, and resumed my transcribing. But just when I had begun to catch up with what my source was saying, the same thing happened. So much for digital ink.


These experiences were typical, and after about a dozen of them, I had things figured out. The more I played with the Newton, the more I liked it. But the more I attempted to work with the Newton, the more frustrated I got. Whenever I got something right the first time, I felt exultant—like I had caught a touchdown pass. But when you use something every day, you expect things to work more often than not. The successful entry of a lunch date shouldn’t be as much of an event as playing in the Rose Bowl. But such triumphs, especially when one writes at a normal pace, are just as rare. Toward the end of my loan period, I had to force myself to use the thing. The novelty had worn off. It was clear that my scheduling, note taking, and name filing could better be performed by a combination of the PowerBook and paper scraps.




Newton's Prospects

Judging from what has been announced and not yet shipped for the MessagePad, I think the Newton has a potentially wonderful future. My road test came too early to use the built-in electronic mail or the wireless paging. Both of those, by turning the Newton into a receiving station for mail and telephone messages, will make the device much more useful. And there are any number of announced third-party applications that will dramatically increase the utility of Newtons. One in particular looks so impressive that it might force me to buy a MessagePad—a baseball statistics package that works with a pager to keep you informed of home runs, stolen bases, and games won in real time.


The Newton deserves its chance to evolve and shine. But it now faces a huge obstacle: Apple’s premature, overhyped release. Every person who, like me, tested a Newton within a month or two after its release, glimpsed only potential—and some of us became soured on its ability to actually perform real work. As a result, a truly innovative product is now saddled with a tarnished reputation.


Apple’s spin doctors, aware of the limitations of the MessagePad upon its release, often invoke the example of the 128K Macintosh, another groundbreaking product that in its early days fulfilled only a fraction of its promises. “We’ve learned our lesson,” say the Apple people, pointing to the new applications and add-ons that will soon come online for the Newton. They imply that the mistake made with the early Mac was allowing too much time to pass before reinforcements arrived. But the real mistake was releasing an underpowered, unsupported machine at all. In both of these cases, just because the development process was lengthy and potential competition loomed, Apple shoved the units out the door too quickly. In the case of the Macintosh, this haste was almost fatal—it took years before people regarded the computer as anything but a toy.


Likewise, Apple should never have released the Newton in its present form. The company should have released Newton MessagePads when they were ready, with built-in modems and twice as much memory, for the lowest price manageable—$300 is about right, with the price going down to $200 when volume gets ramped up.


Apple should have delivered something dazzling enough to establish the Newton as the standard for PDAs. If Apple had waited, the MessagePad could have changed the world. It still might. But first, it has to do something useful.



Steven Levy’s new book, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything, will be published by Viking in January.