Macworld Magazine, April 1995

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy

 

The Palmtop Blues

Of Newton and Magic Link, Marco and Envoy

 

 

They’ll break your heart every time. PDAs. You want them to work. You want them to be lightweight, easy to read, and capable of accepting simple input. You want them to be able to handle your schedule, store your phone numbers, and make your appointments—all while coordinating these details with that mothership computer on your desktop. You want them to be able to handle your mail, all of it. You want them to do what they do, without wires.

 

But the Rolling Stones had it right, in their 1968 paean to personal digital assistants: you can’t always get what you want. If we were prone to accept this truism and wait until the millennium for PDAs to fulfill their promises, the case would be closed. But we keep hoping that, somehow, the current Newtons and Magic Links of the world might give us what we need. Right now. Our hearts flutter as we hear the promises, and again as we grasp a sleek new device in our sweaty little palms. And for a moment, we are bowled over. After all, these are marvels of technology, miracles of silicon, C code, and sweat. Look what they do!

 

And then we try to use them. And find they do not do things well enough. PDAs will always break your heart.

 

 

Newton Redux

Are PDAs useless? No, not at all. If it were so, Newton would be dead by now, and the rumors of its death have been exaggerated, if not greatly. To the surprise of observers who expected the executive chop squad now running Apple Computer to summarily ditch the Newton, Apple is not only supporting its ill-launched device but has also introduced a new version, the MessagePad 120. This is the third iteration, following the hasty fixes that made the MessagePad 110 marginally superior to the first issue, the 100. The changes run from the cosmetic (an improved lid to cover the screen) to the substantial (a desperately needed boost in RAM, up to 2MB). At $699, the sticker price is still high, but one can find the first model, the slickest trash around, for as low as $200.

 

But the best news is in software. Now that the Newton is approaching the ripe old age of two (and considering the ridicule that came from “Sculley’s folly,” this is an achievement in itself), it finally boasts a reasonable number of third-party applications. My favorite used to be a program called Fingertip for Stats (Fingertip Technologies), which accessed the daily performances of various baseball players, but for obvious reasons you don’t hear much about that one these days.

 

While some of these applications are directed to the consumers who were supposedly the original audience for the Newton, Apple has successfully cajoled some big companies into developing vertical applications for the palmtop. Among those developers are Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Standard & Poor’s, and the Voice of America. The key to making a good specialized Newton application, of course, is eliminating the occasions where handwriting input is required. (In many cases this can be done through the use of a series of screens that allow you to check things off rather than actually create text.)

 

Still, using a Newton almost always requires that at some point you have to get text into the box. As handwriting recognition goes, the Newton does quite a good job—better and better with every version. But this is like saying that a plane almost made it to its destination. Every time I use the Newton I am impressed that it makes even the slightest sense of my scrawl. But when I am less focused on the contemplation of technological tricks and more concerned with doing work—even entering an address or a short note—I find that the Newton becomes a frustrating parlor game, twisting my input into improbable misinterpretations. It breaks my heart.

 

Now, Palm Computing, maker of a Newton program called Graffiti, asserts that its product will allow you to flawlessly input text into the device. But Graffiti requires you to alter the way you print, writing some letters in weird, neo-hieroglyphic fashion. In other words, change the way you write. Sorry. I have a near-religious belief that machines should adjust themselves to my behavior and not the other way around. I think that sooner or later, the Newton’s designers are going to have to figure out another way for it to accept input. Only then will people be able to appreciate the elegance of its interface and the sound thought behind its operating system.

 

 

 

Magic at Last?

Newton’s biggest competitor is the Sony Magic Link, the system created by a company called General Magic. There is sort of a soap opera back-story here, in that Apple’s Newton team was led by Steve Capps, one of the original Mac team, while the rival General Magic development team was headed by charter Mac wizards Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson. There are several striking differences between a Magic Link and a Newton. There are also many similarities; both have clocks, calendars, and phone lists. Both have infuriatingly dim screens. Both cost too much. But at $995 for a basic unit, and almost $1500 for a loaded system, the Magic Link costs more.

 

The Magic Link is bulkier than the Newton, but I like it better. It is more centrally based on communications and boasts an underlying technology called Telescript. When you get a Magic Link you are automatically signed up in an AT&T service called PersonalLink. (It costs only $10 a month, something of a bargain.) By communicating with the service, you can send a message to someone on any electronic service or even by fax. And Telescript allows “intelligent” messages. Among other things, that means you can send mail to people under certain conditions, or use software agents to seek out replies to queries. (For more on Telescript, see my column about General Magic, August 1993.)

 

The Magic Link interface, called Magic Cap, is busier than Newton’s—it relies much more on icons, and it provides an unprecedented degree of whimsy. For instance, on the main screen, which depicts a virtual office, I have installed an animation of several dolphins diving into my desk. While not functional, it is endearing. Magic Cap has caught some flak from folks who charge that it is too game-like (although compared with Microsoft’s Bob interface for home users, it’s more formal than a spreadsheet), but that very quality makes the Sony device quite easy to use.

 

But the best part of the Magic Link is what it doesn’t try to do: read your handwriting. Instead, you input text with a little on-screen typewriter-style keyboard. (Or you can connect an optional full-size keyboard, which rather defeats the purpose of a palmtop device.) Two-finger typing is surprisingly accurate, though I still make about one mistake every line or so. But while making an error on the Newton almost always requires me to scratch out the entry and start over, at least I can fix my Magic Link input with the delete key—much easier.

 

For a while I carried around my Sony every day, kept my calendar on it, sent messages to people with it. Then I used it more rarely. Why? For one thing, it is difficult to coordinate its information with the data on my desktop machine. For some reason, a Macintosh version of the Magic Cap interface has yet to appear. Keeping two calendars and two phone books is a messy situation. And when I go on trips, I feel like a jerk when I wind up packing both my PowerBook and my Magic Link. It’s as if someone has pinned a sign on me: “Early Adopter and Slave to Technology.”

 

All of this would be forgivable if the Magic Link were really linked. But it isn’t. You have to plug it into a phone line, using the Link’s crummy 2400 bps modem. What you really need is a wireless version. That’s what we want from PDAs—the ability to receive messages from anywhere and send back replies, right? I am convinced that personal digital assistants will forever and continually break my heart until they are all completely wireless.

 

So imagine my delight in January, when the Motorola company introduced not only a General Magic device called Envoy but also a Newton device called Marco—both hooked up for wireless communications using a combination of the Ardis wireless system and the RadioMail communications system.

 

I haven’t had time yet to play with loaner versions of the Envoy or the Marco. But at the recent Macworld Expo, I did have a chance to handle them. Both are somewhat bulkier than the nonwireless alternatives—wireless modems and multiple batteries make these worthy of the name palmtop only if you are talking about trees instead of hands. Both cost more than their wired counterparts. Still, they are sufficiently compact to stuff in a briefcase.

 

I took advantage of the opportunity to send myself some electronic mail. With the Envoy, I sent myself a list of the costs of various RadioMail subscription plans. The message arrived safely at my Internet provider, and I figured that to satisfy my (admittedly heavy) needs in handling mail, the device would cost me hundreds of dollars a month, landing me just this side of the poorhouse.

 

With the Marco, I input the following note: “This is a Marco message.” When I got home, the Newtonesque translation was waiting for me: This i5 a marco missile.

 

Broke my heart.