Ihnatko: Newton's Ghost

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A new pocket computing device is coming from Apple. If the company isn't planning to release one soon, then it already has some prototypes built and working as proof-of-concepts. Or it's aggressively white-boarding basic ideas on what sort of handheld it hopes to make someday. At least, it refuses to confirm or deny that it might possibly release one eventually. If you don't believe that, maybe this one will work for you: a year or two ago when Steve Jobs modified the tic-tac-toe diagram he uses to represent Apple's hardware strategy, he left a square tantalizingly blank, so there's every reason to--

Oh, who the hell am I fooling? For all we know, Jobs could have intentionally left that space blank for tax purposes. At the moment, the most realistic analysis is that Apple's next handheld will be a flop because the hyperintelligent supermonkeys who will probably rule the planet by then will lack the opposable thumbs and the fine motor skills required to operate a stylus.

Yet folks are still hot for Apple to reinterpret the personal digital assistant for this millennium--perhaps against all logic. But Palm owns the bloody category. It's got a great product that's only getting greater, and even Microsoft is having a hard time convincing people otherwise.

Out Apple-ing Apple

Palm is probably the only company other than Apple ever to design a computer that goes beyond simply being usable to actually being likable. Even the very first Palm Pilot had personality and identity, and gave you the impression that it was the result of a philosophy, not of a business plan. Palm seemed to grasp (and it still does) that the development of computer hardware and software is a creative endeavor--no less than a great book, movie, or album is--and that the price of endless focus-grouping and market analysis is mediocrity.

Maybe the folks at Apple took that principle to the extreme with the Newton. If they had done a little more analysis before building 'em, perhaps they would have discovered that the only way users can fit Newton into convenient pockets is if they first borrow old leisure suits from their dads. But the Newton OS remains the gold standard in handheld operating systems. The Palm OS is at first forgivably clunky and then endearingly so. But when you put a Palm next to the manifestly elegant and powerful aura of a Newton, you're left wondering why no one's making anything that can approach it, even today.

You think I'm kidding? Years after the Newton was discontinued--and after I finally determined that I was expending more calories keeping my Newton working with incompatible hardware and software than its developers had spent designing it--it still takes no fewer than three items to spackle the hole my Apple MessagePad 2100 left behind.

My Palm is the best thing for managing contacts and appointments, has the best library of mobile apps and games, and has the most elegant operating system. My Compaq iPaq runs PocketPC, which is the first version of Windows CE that inspires me to write about it calmly instead of causing me to jump up and down, gesture wildly, and shriek incoherently, as you might behave after a car turned right without signaling and knocked you off your bicycle. It's the best handheld computer for working with large quantities of desktop data (databases, documents, sound, and graphics). And for the most important function of my Newton, I'm back to using a pocket sketchbook. No other pen-based handheld computer is worth a shaved elk hoof if you need to jot down notes longer than a sentence or two.

Generation Handheld

Maybe I'm not a typical user. I mean, I actually enjoy the serene knowledge that in any room, I'm the person carrying the most microprocessors, even if it means wearing them all on a bandolier across my chest like Chewbacca. But my dilemma illustrates both the importance of the handheld computer and the inelegance of current offerings.

The Newton was ahead of its time. We're just now at the leading edge of the major cultural shift it anticipated: year after year, we're getting closer to the day when the majority of the adult population is made up of people who grew up with computers. The handheld computer is merely a thriving market space today, but before long those things are gonna be like underpants: unless you're participating in an activity that offers a distinct advantage to nudists, not having 'em on your person marks you as an exceedingly odd individual. In this new world, a company without a serious presence in the pocket-doohickey realm is a company behind the eight ball.

For now, Apple's sole presence in that enormous market space is, well, Palm's support for Mac OS. It just seems wrong. If Palm is fulfilling every Mac user's expectations of a Mac handheld, why do cities burn every time there's a new rumor of an-- Ask for it by name! --Apple Consumer Pocket Electronic Doohickey? We all want Apple to get back into the handheld world, and not just because we're so hard-core that we bleed green, yellow, orange, red, purple, and blue. We want it because it's an opportunity for Apple to do what it's great at. It's good at making iMacs in wacky colors, but it's great at making, say, the first totally amphibious Web server, or a notebook that doubles as a pop-up opera hat. Apple is the only company both eager and able to present truly fresh damn-the-torpedoes ideas.

The thought of Apple getting back into the handheld game is tantalizing even if you believe that Apple should stay out of the handheld-hardware business altogether. Imagine Apple creating new connectivity software that allowed the Mac to work far more intimately with a Palm device than any Windows machine could, for starters.

After your third or fourth beer, it may even occur to you that the iPaq uses the StrongARM processor--the same one powering the next-generation Palms--and that both handhelds will have flashable ROMs, so their original operating systems can be wiped and replaced with something better, written by a company that's good at spotting and eliminating the most cumbersome aspects of the status quo.

If you keep drinking until your friends, ignoring your seemingly incoherent mumblings, trick you out of your car keys and put you to bed on the nearest sofa, you might drift off to sleep remembering that, hey, you know, Apple still owns the Newton OS. And wasn't it written for the StrongARM processor? What if Apple . . . grrzzzzzzzzz .

ANDY IHNATKO has written about the Mac for years, and yes, he does own a holster for his Newton.

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