Newton's Ghost

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 3:37 AM

Few would deny that Apple's ill-fated Newton PDA was ahead of its time. While it would take a few more years and a few smart decisions by the company then known as Palm Computing to make a PDA that worked really well (the first Pilot), Apple was clearly on to something. Though Steve Jobs assassinated the device nearly a decade ago, it seems perhaps he has — in not so many words — started to bring it back to life.

In late 2001, when everything still seemed gloomy and tense after the World Trade Center bombings, rumors started to circulate that Apple was getting ready to launch a new product. Many thought it seemed rather foolhardy to unveil something new while the economy was sinking, but other more hopeful folks started to catch the scent of a portable device and dreams of a new Newton began to dance in the heads of loyal users of that device — others too, after all, while the original Newton had its flaws, it was innovative, and maybe with Jobs back at Apple's helm, a new Newton could be a Newton done right.

Underwhelmingly, Apple instead launched a little media player that seemed, well, rather unexciting. Slashdot's founder, Rob Malda, famously remarked upon the announcement of the iPod, “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” Of course, in hindsight, Apple made an incredibly good decision launching the iPod and not a new Newton-like device. Thanks to the iPod, along with a revitalized Mac with Mac OS X, Apple went from a dying company to its present status as a Wall Street favorite. Those of us who had hoped at the time for a new Apple PDA were perhaps missing the point.

While an Apple PDA, or any PDA for that matter, would have had a fairly small market because of such a device's limitations at the time, a media player is something virtually everyone can make use of. And, many millions of iPods later, they do make use of them. In the time between 2001 and now, the PDA market has dwindled and almost the entire focus has drifted from PDA to smart phone. It is hardly news that hardly anyone pays attention to the HP iPaq or the various Palm PDAs; instead the limelight has been dominated by Blackberries, Palm Treos and other similar devices. While PDA OSes underlie those devices, the idea of a handheld computer really hasn't progressed that much from the early Palm Pilots. That dream seemed to die for most users.

The focus in recent times has been primarily on telephony and other communications needs. Even the iPhone of most rumors was the fusion of Apple's media player (not a PDA) with a cell phone, and that is not too far from what Jobs presented at MacWorld in January. While he referred to it as a computer and some hailed it as the return of the Newton, that still was a little off the mark: the iPhone was clearly said not to be something that would take add on software, very much unlike a good PDA. It was basically a better iPod, a web browser and a phone.

The iPhone was more capable than an iPod, and immensely intriguing, but it was not flexible like a PDA. That is doubly true of the iPod touch, which has an even more restricted feature set than the iPhone. None of this makes these devices bad — I use an iPhone as my standard phone these days, and I appreciate its internet connectivity and other handy functionality. But, I don't confuse it for my trusty old Palm with all its many different software programs nor with promise of the original Newton.

And yet a funny thing happened right before the iPod's sixth birthday. Just before the date when six years prior hopes of a Newton successor were dashed with a mere media player, Jobs wrote an open letter announcing that Apple would indeed release a software development kit for the iPhone, and somewhat more surprisingly, the iPod touch. When that kit hits the market in February, if Apple is not too foolish in how restrictive it is with availability of it, the company will usher in an era of officially supported applications on those devices. And that will turn two closed products into a new handheld computer platform, that is, it will make the iPhone and the iPod touch undeniably members of the PDA genus.

The two official descendants of that little device that dashed our hopes for a new Newton will, in just a few months, become true heirs to Newton's legacy. The iPhone is already changing the market for phones dramatically, but barring any terrible missteps, that is only the beginning. The Newton and the Palm, the Pocket PC and even the latest Treo, have all served their purposes but been left grasping to be really good mini-computers — they've failed because of slow speeds, poor multimedia support and less than intuitive interfaces.

The iPod touch and iPhone already have the well known and lauded interface, and they get the multimedia functionality right too; allowing add-on software on the devices' robust mobile OS X completes the puzzle: the true era of the PDA, the true handheld computer, is finally arriving.

Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business.

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