Sun 2/1 Newton Vs. All

Speaking of Graffiti, Phil Gyford attempts to answer the age old question, which is mightier the stylus, the pen, or virtual keyboard?

For some time I’ve been meaning to test my small collection of PDA/smartphone gadgets to see which of their methods of input was quickest. The iPhone’s software keyboard? The Newton’s handwriting recognition? Palm’s Graffiti?

Here is what Phil had to say about the Newton.

This method was easier than I expected and it felt like it was as quick as handwriting recognition could be — there is some delay in translating my scribble into text, but it’s no slower than the speed of my writing, so the device didn’t get behind. Once I got into it, correcting mistakes was also easy: tapping a word brings up alternative spellings and capitalisation, and one further tap away are two ways to manually correct the characters.

Here is what Phil has to say about the Palm.

In theory this simpler method is less error-prone than having to interpret normal handwriting, although I remember that even when I was using the Vx every day I found it at least as frustrating. Small mistakes mean letters are mis-interpreted and, then and now, I was forever having my ‘Y’s appear as ‘X’s.

The results are not far off from what I expected. I still feel he could have done better with the Newton, and the Palm given more practice. Read the full account to find out which handwriting recognition method came in first.

Sun 2/1 Five Things Wrong


Landon Dyer, Newton developer, gives us five reasons why the Newton failed compared to the Palm Pilot.

Ultimately the Newton was a market failure. If you look at the competition at the time we did maybe five things wrong that the other guys got right or chose not to try to address:

One. Price point. The Newton was about a thousand dollars. Ouch. The Palm Pilot was about $300.

The Newton’s technical advantages worked against it when competing against the Palm, that had many of the same features but sold for a third of the price.

Two. Form factor. The Newton was large and weighed about a pound. The other guy fit in a shirt pocket.

Before creating the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins whittled down a piece of wood and carried it around in his shirt pocket in order to approximate the size and weight of his future digital assistant. While the Newton’s technical advantages gave it unnecessary bulk compared to its competitors. The Palm Pilot was just more portable in a time when mobility over specs mattered.

Three. Handwriting recognition wasn’t quite there (and the production Newton had a digitizer noise issue that we found out about only later that Fall, which dramatically reduced the recognition rate). The Pilot used a much more primitive letter-by-letter system, but people got it and it worked well after a little training.

The beauty of Graffiti, the Palm’s letter recognition system, “is that is doesn’t work like handwriting recognition. It actually works like a keyboard.” It is easier to get people to write in a way a computer can read, than get a computer to read the way people write. The Palm Pilot made the most of limited technology. Although the Newton’s handwriting recognition got better, it was always trying to decipher bad handwriting, something even us humans have a hard time reading. No wonder it got a bad rap.

Four. No real apps … and you had to pay Apple a commission. For a totally new platform, charging your developers to develop software is an uphill battle. (Of course, all this changed with the iPhone, but the demand was very high). The commission idea was just another stupid and reality-disconnected idea from upper management; instead of attracting developers (who already had to pony up over a thousand bucks for a dev kit) I think it discouraged folks from even considering developing for the Newton.

Combine that with the fact that most software was distributed via expensive PCMCIA card, and syncing software between the computer and Newton was complicated. Without a viable software distribution model, and a flourishing development community, the Newton didn’t stand a chance.

Developing on the Pilot was a lot like programming a 68000-based Mac, and pretty familiar to many programmers, while NewtonScript was something from another world (even if it did have many cool aspects).

Five. The “MessagePad” wasn’t all that good at actually messaging anything. It was awkward to connect a Newton to anything (via a cable or PCMCIA card), and the modes of communication were either inconvenient or expensive (wireless pay-by-the-kilobyte). The Newton was about 15 years ahead of the technology curve here.

One of the miracles of the Palm Pilot was the reliability and ease of use of the out-of-box HotSync. The Newton came with a lot of features advertised on its box, faxing, beaming, emailing, and placing phone calls, but often those tasks were obstructed by the purchase of additional hardware and the required complication of the day.

What might have hurt the Newton most of all was the “magic date” for which it was released.

The Newton probably needed another three months or so of bake time before we shipped it. By November or so we’d patched nearly all of the software issues that critics (rightly) complained about, and I like to think that the reception would have been much kinder if we’d worked just a little longer.

John Sculley insisted on a strict ship date for the Newton, because he saw the project falling behind. Ship dates are important. They help constrain feature creep. But releasing the Newton before it was ready, gave the Newton a poor reputation. The rest is Egg Freckles.

Sat 1/31 Install Command Line Tools

One of my favorite features of OS X Mavericks, is that the Command Line Tools can be installed separately from the Xcode IDE.

The Command Line Tool package gives terminal users many commonly used tools, utilities, and compilers, including make, GCC, clang, perl, svn, git, size, strip, strings, libtool, cpp, what, and many other useful commands that are usually found in default linux installations. We’ve included the full list of new binaries available through the command line toolkit below for those interested.

Installing the Command Line Toolsis simple. Just enter xcode-select --install into the Terminal and press Return. A downloadable installer is also avilable.

Now you are just one step closer to running Homebrew, my favorite OS X package manager.

Sat 1/31 Product Wide View

Landon Dyer, Newton developer, looking back at some of the Newont’s design decisions in contrast with the Palm Pilot.

Yeah. I bent heaven and earth and did some of the longest hours in my career making the Newton’s storage system bulletproof from crashes and other failures, while Palm’s solution was to make it really easy for the Pilot to talk to a PC (whereupon you got backups of that data we were trying to protect AND you got a communications story that didn’t utterly suck). That was a valuable lesson: Even coders at the coal face of your product need to have a product-wide view.

It is ironic that the Newton MessagePad “wasn’t all that good at actually messaging anything. It was awkward to connect a Newton to anything (via a cable or PCMCIA card), and the modes of communication were either inconvenient or expensive (wireless pay-by-the-kilobyte). The Newton was about 15 years ahead of the technology curve here.” Simple desktop sync is just one area where the original Palm Pilot got it right.

Sat 1/31 Cute eMate

Christopher Phin, writing for Macworld, about his admiration for the eMate 300.

Regardless, there’s something so charismatic and captivating about the eMate. It looms so large in the mind because it’s such a peculiar and weirdly awesome little machine with such a mix of idiosyncratic innovations. The “inkwells” into which you could rest the stylus (one on each side so it didn’t matter if you were right- or left-handed), the Assist button, the ability to quickly beam work to teachers or other students wirelessly using infra-red, a slide-out panel on the bottom where you could write your name and address, that handle that foreshadowed the iBook’s (and which I’d welcome on even a modern Mac), and, wrapping everything, that weird, wonderful translucent emerald.

I have always been a MessagePad fan myself, but there is something adhering about Apple’s first translucent computer.