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Anthony Frausto-Robledo ([email protected])
29 Aug 2002

Opinion: Newton X: Why Apple needs to go this way

A story on Wired today discussed the Apple Newton PDA and its vigorous user community...a collection of users (numbering over 20,000) worldwide who continue to stand by Apple's defunct granddaddy of the PDA world. The Newton was and remains today -- as these users will remind you -- the best PDA on the planet. Regardless, Apple killed the Newton platform so that Apple could focus all its resources on Mac OS X.

The memory of this computer reminds me of why Apple should have never gotten rid of it in the first place. Besides having some of the most passionate and intelligent PDA users and programmers in the world, the Newton itself had the absolute best handwriting recognition software to be found anywhere. Ironically, Mac OS X Jaguar now has that same handwriting recognition software. Moreover, Apple's OS X programmers have likely improved it a bit.

What Prematurely Kills May Give You New Life

Some say what killed the Newton was the product's premature introduction. Some say specifically it was the initially poor handwriting recognition software. But this handwriting recognition engine got much better over time, and today lives as Inkwell in Mac OS X Jaguar.

I say what killed the product can give it new life. You see, the Newton had (and still has) something no other PDA has ever been able to match: a unique combination of raw power (in its RISC ARM chip), powerful Newton OS, and huge screen. The form-factor of the Newton is unique.

Those combinations made it a favorite in vertical industries like medicine, field engineering services, retail, and science. The product is ideal for architects as well -- its sketching abilities captured the essence of the architect's famous 'napkin sketch'.


Why The Newton Should Come Back

The Newton should come back to challenge Microsoft's Tablet PC initiatives and fill a void that will ensue when the PDA industry merges with the cell phone market to become the "smart phone". Precisely because there is inevitable convergence with the PDA and cell phone, the resulting products will create a vacuum which can be (and should be) filled. Microsoft would love to fill this vacuum with Windows-driven tablets of all sizes. But Apple and its many allies shouldn't let them do that for all the obvious reasons.

Newton Was Always a Tablet

The Newton was destined to be a tablet device. In fact, there were originally two Newton teams in the beginning, each with a different philosophy for the new personal digital assistant. One team envisioned something very small (like the Palm Pilot). The other team saw the new device as something larger (not too far from Microsoft's Tablet PC). What resulted was a compromise called the Newton.

If Steve Jobs was back at Apple then things could have ended up differently for the first Newton. But history is over and its time for new action.

An Apple Open-Source Tablet Architecture Initiative (Newton X)

Apple should create an open-source tablet architecture initiative. Such an initiative could help thwart the Microsoft Tablet PC, provide a place to go for the Newton community, and allow Apple the chance to experience a true 'open-source' experience without any financial threat to its main business.

It has become obvious and clear that Apple has no intentions of coming out with a Palm-OS based PDA device or one that uses a Mac OS X Lite operating system. Jobs has stated that the PDA will morph into the smart phone. Some speculate that Apple will come out with iPhone in the next year and that it will be a device that reinvents what a smart phone should be like.

Additionally, Apple is slowly turning the iPod into a multipurpose device, replete with traditional PDA responsibilities. One could easily imagine Apple taking the iPod so far as to make it that one device we use for all things (music, portable hard drive, PDA, cell phone, communications, and even video player). Such a device has been called the ultra personal computer or UPC. Such a device lives at our side...a constant companion. And naturally it will tend towards the small.

Size Does Matters

Where Apple can go with Newton X is up in scale. Starting with the last generation Newton as a starting point, such new larger Newtons could evolve into a pure tablet play and play to the original Newton's strengths in the vertical markets.

Vertical Industries and Open-Source

These vertical industries are ideal for open-source and the Newton developer community had some of the brightest and most creative programmers anywhere in the world.

As a starting point, Apple could take the majority of the Newton OS code and turn it into open-source project. Second, it could create a reference platform based around the prevalent mobile device microprocessor architectures: ARM's StrongARM (RISC) chips and Intel's new XScale. With Arm's upcoming mobile chip 3D visualization initiatives, such an open-source tablet reference design could emerge as a viable gaming platform for wireless gamers who need the larger screens for advanced 3D games.

Newton X devices as variably sized tablet computers are ideal for scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers in the field, field services personnel, retail, shipping, warehousing, education customers, contractors and architects, artists who work outside, and all users whose primary work involves mobility, the outdoors, and pen input functions like drawing.

Newton X itself could be rewritten by the open-source community around the same Darwin core and Mach kernel, with the potential for a Linux kernel development. By keeping the reference design UNIX/Linux-based, Apple can be assured that Macs will be ideal connectivity partners to Newton X devices. And the users listed above happen to be many of the current target users for Mac OS X, especially scientists and engineers, architects and educational customers.

Closing Comments

The question really is: can Apple and the rest of the industry afford to allow Microsoft to take over the emerging tablet computing market unchallenged?

Microsoft will discover that the tablet market has legs. Pen-input computing will only advance further as handwriting recognition and voice recognition improve towards perfection. The PDA market is dead as we know it. It will evolve into the 'smart phone' or what Handspring calls the "communicator" (what it calls its superb Treo line) and this market will distill down to a particular optimal form factor with tiny keyboard and voice input options.

But the smart phone can never fulfill the needs of industries which originally turned to the Newton. Those industries need larger screens and they don't need keyboards per se; they need superb wired and wireless communications. And they need superb programmers. These are all things the Newton platform provided. With the cell phone and PDA market all headed in one very competitive and distinct direction, nobody is watching the vacuum that is being created by that movement. Except for Microsoft. And if they go unchallenged, they will soon dominate the larger (Newton form-factor) tablet computer market and use it as leverage into its neighboring markets: smart phone, laptop, and even traditional PDA market, which will likely become more valuable to the K-12 education market.

To prevent that we need Newton X.


For questions and feedback, write to Anthony at: [email protected]

Anthony Frausto-Robledo, B.Arch., is the founder and editor of the award-winning Web site. Educated as an architect, he has been an architectural professional for over 17 years and was a senior designer with the distinguished Boston architectural firm Koetter Kim & Associates prior to launching his web consultancy, BritasMedia. As president of BritasMedia, Anthony consults AEC firms on strategic Web initiatives, animation, databases, and IT-related issues in addition to publishing the Architosh site daily. Since 1997 he has been a member of the Thesis Studio and History & Theory faculty at the Boston Architectural Center College of Architecture and Interior Design and a Thesis Advisor.

BritasMedia's publishing mission with the Architosh Website is to serve a worldwide audience of Macintosh-based CAD/3D and AEC professionals with market-leading information technology (IT) resources, news and editorial products. Architosh currently serves over 25,000 readers monthly in more than 70 countries around the world.

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