Apple's Newton Message Pad: for cocktail parties only?

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

September 27, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

Day One: This is being writings a worth it takes a while before the handed tiny red floor is footprint. Signed, Bite (poof!) Beers (poof!) been (poof!) I sits.

Day Two: This is being written on an Apple newton Message Pad. It talks a while before the handwriting recognition is footprint (poof!) footprint (poof!) foolproof. Signed, Pete.

Day Three: Fare well, Newton. See you in six moths. Panics! (poof!) Thanks!

*

So went my first "Newton Experience," the term Apple Computer Inc. uses to refer to someone actually using its new Newton Message Pad personal digital assistant (PDA). Eventually, there will be many types of Newtons on the market. The Message Pad, which is operated by writing on a 5-inch screen using a penlike stylus, is simply the first.

The bottom line on the Newton Message Pad is that Apple promised too much and failed to deliver a useful device for everyday executive chores. But the Message Pad practically hums with untapped potential, and six months (or moths) to a year from now, it is likely to be a popular executive tool.

Apple reportedly has sold about 10,000 of the pen-based, hand-held Message Pads since they were put on sale last month, with prices at $699 for a basic unit and rising to more than $1,000 for a model equipped to do useful work.

The 1-pound Message Pad, about the size of a slim video cassette, is unlike any other Apple computer, and indeed is unlike most personal computers. It has a new operating system, a new microprocessor and a new mission: to become the first "any time, anywhere" pocket computer and communicator for business executives.

But computer industry leaders who experienced the Newtons at the Agenda 94 conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week concluded that the Message Pads are, at least for now, best suited as random nonsequitur generators or high-tech fashion accessories.

"The only clearly defined use for the Newton is as a cocktail party ice breaker, where you can get all the pretty girls -- or handsome guys, depending on your point of view -- to crowd around and see what stupid things Newton's recognizer will fTC come up with based on your handwriting," said Stewart Alsop, editor of Infoworld, a weekly computer industry newspaper.

When it was first described publicly more than a year ago by Apple's chairman, John Sculley, the Newton was said to be a combination pen-based computer, personal organizer, fax and data communicator and wireless messaging system.

The Newton is indeed full of promise, but that's not the same thing as fulfilling the promises. At this point, there's no way to get electronic mail messages to and from the Message Pad, except to "squirt" them to another Newton via an infrared link at a maximum distance of a few feet.

There are only a few simple software applications available for Newton, including one that makes it easy to split the tab at a restaurant and calculate the tip. To be fair, this makes the Newton more useful than Tandy Corp.'s rival PDA, called Zoomer, which contains a data base of birth stones and state flowers.

Until last week, when Apple finally shipped its Newton Connection Kit, there was no way to link the Message Pad to a desktop computer. Apple contends that the Message Pad will link up to Windows-based machines as well as to Macintoshes, but I was unable to test this feature in the short time Apple allowed for the "experience."

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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