Mac Musings

Newtons, Palms, and Pocket PCs: Why Apple Needs a PDA

Daniel Knight - 2003.10.01

A few weeks ago I treated myself to some "obsolete" technology - or, as we prefer to refer to it, low end. I ordered a Newton MessagePad 130 from Shreve Systems for US$30.

It may be a decade since the Newton was first introduced, and Palms may be ubiquitous, but I'd never used a PDA. I figured it would be fun to play with and might actually help me get organized. It's definitely helping.

For those unfamiliar with the Newton, it was the first PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and paved the way for the Palm Pilot, which in turn paved the way for PDAs running Windows. Unlike the Palms and Pocket PCs, Newton's are not palm-sized devices. They're about the size of a 250 page mass market paperback book.

The MessagePad 130 is no speed demon; for performance, you want a 2100. But it has a built-in address book and calendar, essentials for getting organized. And it lets me input data by writing on the screen with a stylus or using a small keyboard displayed on the screen.

Handwriting recognition is far from 100%, and I'm sure my penmanship does nothing to help the situation (I consistently got a D in penmanship in grade school). But it does let me input with a stylus - and two of my sons are doing the same on their newly acquired MessagePad 130s.

My wife was so impressed with what we were doing that she decided to get a PDA for her business, but something small and modern.


My advice was something that ran the Palm OS, since it was more Mac-like, more Mac friendly, and more established than Pocket PCs. In looking over the selection at Office Depot, we decided that the Sony Clie SJ33 looked like the best of the bunch. It has typical Sony style, a nice protective cover, and a 320 x 320 color display.

Graffiti 2What it doesn't have is usable handwriting recognition. It runs Palm OS 4.1 (which can't be upgraded to 5.x) and the original Graffiti for character recognition, which requires that you enter text in a small area near the bottom of the screen.

Worse yet, it requires that you enter text using Palm's Graffiti alphabet, which means learning to write all over again. And this system has 72% worldwide market share?

Granted, Graffiti 2 is available for free on Palm OS 5 models and as a software program for older Palms, but even then you have to write your letters in just the right way. What a joke!

So the Clie went back to Office Depot.

Pocket PC

This time we talked to the staff, and they strongly recommended getting a Pocket PC - you know, the PDAs that run a version of Windows. As Mac users, that didn't set well with us, so we went home to do some research.

We discovered PocketMac, a program that lets Mac OS X users sync with a Pocket PC. Perfect, and we could even download a demo version. So one more trip to Office Depot, where we picked an H-P iPaq.

From a features standpoint, it sounded great. Linda would be able to synchronize her iPaq with Apple's Address Book, the iPaq calendar with iCal, and even work with email and Word documents on the Pocket PC.

Well, everything certainly sounded nice. Then she started using the iPaq and found some real problems.

For instance, Linda is left-handed, and as she writes, the iPaq picks up her hand dragging across the screen, which completely messes up character recognition. And even when she's careful to avoid that, text input pales in comparison to the ancient Newtons. So she mostly uses the onscreen keyboard, using that to enter text with the stylus.

And then there's the PocketMac software. It imports from the OS X Address Book, but it reverses the first name and last name fields - that took a long time to fix record-by-record. Now her Address Book has the fields reversed, but at least is syncs with the iPaq. (One of Linda's friends says the Pocket PC does the same thing with Outlook on Windows, so maybe it's the Pocket PC address book that's broken. Still, a "pro" piece of software such as PocketMac should make things work right and perform the conversion on the fly.)

PocketMac 2.x had another real problem: It only syncs with iCal records in the PocketMac category. If you have other categories, such as Home and Work, it ignores them. PocketMac 3.0 is supposed to fix that, but Linda can't even get that to detect her iPaq. (PocketMac upgrade policy - 3.0 came out one day after she bought 2.x, but she still had to pay an upgrade fee, and now nothing works. If she'd only waited a day, she could have bought 3.0 for $41.77 instead of paying $75 for version 2 and $5 more for the upgrade.)

Linda's going on a business trip last week. She'll have her iBook, her cell phone, the digital camera, and the iPaq, assuming PocketMac tech support ever helps her make things work.

An Apple PDA

And that's why Apple needs to produce a PDA. Newtons were great, but oversized. At least their character recognition worked well, and they really did connect to Macs easily. Palms are nice, sync readily with Macs, but require you to master their Graffiti alphabet - who has time for that? Pocket PCs don't officially support a Mac connection, and so far PocketMac has been a nightmare.

Apple has the character recognition technology, which was perfected between 1993 and 1998, and is now part of OS X. Apple could produce a PDA that uses a PowerPC processor, runs a version of OS X with an interface tweaked for a smaller display (say 320 x 480), and synced readily with all the standard OS X applications.

Instead of an oddball device with a pocket OS and an uncommon CPU, an OS X Newton would run an existing OS on the same CPU used on laptops and desktops. And all of the problems with Graffiti and syncing with Windows would be history.

Apple would have to do things differently, and the X-Newton would definitely be a niche product. It probably wouldn't need a terribly fast CPU, but it would probably need a 10 GB hard drive and at least 256 MB RAM to offer decent performance. That's going to make it a lot more expensive than the $99 Palm Zire and a bit more costly than the $299 Palms and Pocket PCs we saw at Office Depot.

But it will be worth it. If Apple can successfully sell 10 GB iPods for $299 and 40 GB ones for $499, an X-Newton for $399 or $499 should be an easy sell - the full power of OS X, the ability to play your iTunes, and stylus input with usable character recognition could make it the leading PDA among Mac OS X users, just as the iPod is the top choice among MP3 buyers who want something with a hard drive.

After all, if people are already spending $299 for a Pocket PC that runs Windows and then another $75 for PocketMac software, a $399 X-Newton that works perfectly with the Mac would be a no brainer - and it probably wouldn't be a hard sell at $499 either.

Apple could diversify the line by offering larger hard drives and maybe even creating a stripped version (5 GB drive, 256 MB RAM, and a version of Panther that needs less hard drive space) for the education market, where PDAs are starting to replace student laptops in some school systems.

There could eventually be X-Newtons with keyboards, larger X-Newtons for those with visual impairments or who just want more on their screen, and faster X-Newtons for those who need more power.

Apple has the technology to grow beyond their core market of personal computers and their new market in the music realm by introducing a PDA that meets the needs of Macintosh users. An X-Newton could bridge the gap, using technologies from iBooks, iPods, and the original Newton to create a PDA that Windows users would want to own.

Or Apple can leave us where we are, caught between two solutions which don't provide the kind of solutions Mac users expect.

Until then, I'll keep using my Newton.