The View From Here: Back in the Saddle

    The View From Here: Back in the Saddle

    a digital hub

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    The View From Here: Back in the Saddle

    May 1997

    Back in the Saddle

    Almost everyone within digital earshot knows of my predeliction for portable computing. This month I am overcome with awe by the

    MessagePad 2000, the “MP2K”. This is the personal digital assistant (PDA) that I was working dowards during my years at the late GO Corporation of Foster City. Back then we didn’t have the raw horsepower required to perform handwriting recognition without interfering with how you used your PDA. This Newton, with its 120 MHz RISC chip, does. Back then we had only low-resolution screens, not enough to provide a useful workspace. This Newton, with its 4-bit (16 levels of grey) backlit screen, does. Back then we didn’t have any way to type directly into the PDA. This Newton, with its optional keyboard, does. Back then the communications options were woefully underpowered, not up to the task of keeping in touch with much more than document faxing. This Newton, with its integrated Internet connectivity and several wireless and cellular options, excels. This is one useful and speedy machine.

    In those ancient days in Very North “Silicon Valley”, the must frustrating thing to me was the poor state of data synchronization with a desktop computer. Corporate management had allowed their common sense to be supplanted by a tale of a huge untapped market of clueless worker droids, each of whom was computerphobic but who needed to purchase a “tablet” (our machines were typically 8 by 11 inches with a very large writing area). Those of us who actually used computers realized that the first wave of pen-based pioneers would be geeks who were very comfortable with computing equipment. PDAs would compliment a desktop, allowing “information workers” to go mobile. That’s exactly where this Newton takes us: software to backup and synchronize data on the PDA with your MacOS and Wintel machines is included with each MP2K. And third-party tools allow data synchronization with popular scheduling packages such as “Now Software”‘s Up-to-Date and ‘s Schedule+.

    As the universe seeks to maintain equilibrium, meetings are the punishment for your success.

    Meetings are the perfect time and place to explore the unobtrusive powerhouse of this generation of . I carry it with me wherever I go (even in my fanny pack, running up and down the Filbert steps). It’s a wee bit bigger than the previous models of Newton, a mite thinner, and a bit heavier. It’s too big to fit into your back pocket, which is probably a good thing given the awesome number of broken Pilot PDAs.

    Handwriting Recognition

    If I have seen further than others it’s because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.

    It’s in meetings that the handwriting recognition (HWR) capabilities shine. unlike previous Newtons this one can keep up with printed and cursive writing. True, there are the occasional hilarious translations, but this HWR is head and shoulders above what came before. It’s the most obvious benefit of the high-performance 162 MHz StrongARM RISC CPU.

    Another benefit of this particular CPU, what with its onboard power-conservation, is much longer battery life. Apple marketing claims three to six weeks of life during normal use, but I’ve been using my MP2K a lot and I’m recharging the nickel cadmium batteries at least once weekly, more when I use my “Megahertz” PCMCIA modem. These days I plug in the AC adapter when I connect the phone line. (I’ve been trying to obtain a wireless unit but I’ve been unsucessful to date. I’m sure that’ll eat battery power. When I finally get one I’ll let you know.)

    Luggability

    The 1.4-pound weight is more than offset by the 100 dot-per-inch high-resolution screen (an increase from 320 by 240 to 480 by 320 pixels). The resolution seems even clearer because 16 shades of grey can now be shown (instead of the black-and-white displays on earlier models), but in less than ideal lighting the greys become hard to discern. (I’ve compensated for this by asking the authors of my favorite programs to use greyscale only when it adds to the usability.)

    The backlit display is pretty good, better in darkness, marginal in twilight. (The image at left shows the backlight on; it appears as a greenish tinge.) What’s annoying to me is that how sensitive the display is to heat. When I carry the MP2K in the sun I have to tweak down the contrast. Let it get cold and the opposite happens.

    The best new feature? Two PCMCIA slots. After years of swapping cards like an out-of-luck gambler it’s now possible to have a PCMCIA modem and a PCMCIA memory card installed at the same time. Nirvana.

    What Makes the World Go ‘Round

    Software is the life-blood of a computing device, and the MP2K has a plethora of freeware, shareware, and costware available for it. Let me quickly walk you through the software that I use every day.

    Email is probably the most vital connection issue for me. The MP2K comes bundled with “EnRoute”, but I prefer “GoFetch” and “Eudora for Newton”. (Sadly, there’s no Eudora Lite for Newton anymore.)

    “NewsHopper” is an underpowered web browser supplied with the MP2K. It’s far behind the HTML times, doesn’t understand frames, and has an unnerving habit of causing the MP2K to reset when you’re browsing with automatic loading of images turned on. Hope for an update soon.

    “Newt’s Cape” is another web browser (and a whole lot more). I have no experience with it; that’s for another column.

    “Now Software”‘s “Now Synchronize” lets me keep my calender and phone numbers in sync with my desktop (via Now Up-to-Date/Contact 3.5). Of course, the current version is 3.6, and things don’t seem to work perfectly.

    There is a shareware factory that merits mention: without it the Newton experience would be much the poorer. Ben Gottlieb’s “StandAlone Software” provides much of the useability and subtle, elegant refinements to the Newton operating system. It’s a must-visit site.

    Adam Tow’s “Foundation Systems” makes software to enhance your Newton productivity. Check it out.

    “Catamount”‘s PocketMoney allows you to manage financial assets on Newton. It even supports moving data up to Quicken (and others) and down from them. Cool.

    There’s a lot more good stuff out there. I suggest visiting Newton-specific web sites (perhaps through the “Newton Web Ring”) such as “Always NewtonCentral” (updated daily).

    Bitch, Whine, and Moan

    So what don’t I like about the MP2K? (You knew this section was coming. Has there ever been an Apple model without some glaring screw-ups?) Well, the amount of heap space is too small, necessitating web browsing with images off (lest the provided web browser cause the MP2K to reset). Word on the net is that the next larger size chip would have cost Apple all of US$9 more. Sigh. Penny wise and pound foolish.

    Rather than supply an industry-standard serial connector, Apple has provided a new connector and an easy-to-lose dongle. Sigh. It may be that this new connector will let us do great things in the future, but Apple should tell us the upside at the same time they saddle us with this new annoyance.

    Synchronizing data to your desktop is weak. Apple has dropped the ball on this one by not motivating third-party developers into providing stable translators. The recently-released “Newton Connection Utilities” provides translators for an out-of-date version of Now Software’s Up-to-Date/Contact bundle. Sigh. Was it so hard to get Now to ship an updated translator when they migrated from version 3.5 to 3.6. Double sigh.

    We Rest Our Case

    What to make of all this? The MP2K is an awesome piece of hardware. If you have a desktop computer and you want to take it all with you when you move around your office (or the world) then this is the device for you. I’m finding that the MP2K compares favorably to my PowerBooks; I leave them locked to something and use them for the tasks they’re best at. The MP2K has taken over a suprisingly large number of tasks in my life, helping me eliminate many of the scraps of paper that litter my desk and line my pockets. I’m even able to schedule things on the fly, checking for scheduling conflicts, have phone numbers handy, and enjoy an available writing surface for when the muse strikes. This is empowerment, pure and simple.

    (Honorable mention: many thanks to the staff of the San Francisco “NewtonSource” store. They’ve put up with many questions, frequent walk-ins, and they’ve always got a smile ready. Thanks, Blake and Lee.)

    Comfort from fingers…

    Spending a large percentage of your waking moments sitting in front of a computer, typing away, provides your tender body with lots of wear and tear. Anything you can do to minimize this abuse will let you work longer and happier. This month I happen to have two nuggets to pass on. Enjoy.

    If you’re banging your fingertips on a keyboard for any significant period of time you’re risking carpal tunnel syndrome or several other repetitive stress injuries. You have options: do less typing, purchase an ergonomic keyboard, or learn to type on the Dvorak keyboard mapping.

    EXCLUSIVE! A few weeks ago I sent the “Dvorak International” two-handed keyboard layout to several well-known Newton software developers. One of them took my subtle hint and created a version for NewtOS, presented here for the first time.

    the 5 kb file here. Enjoy. This is incredibly useful when you’re using the attached keyboard or through “Newton Connection Utilities”.

    …to buttocks

    If you haven’t heard of

    – the most comfortable pants I’ve ever stumbled across – then you’ve missed a wonderful slice of our local colorful history. Before the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, visitors would have me swing by the ChiPants store on the way to home. There they’d run a load of laundry and spend the week enjoying new pants. ChiPants come in all sorts of textures, fabrics, colors, and styles. I had a collection of shorts (in hemp, for hiking), pleated pants (in cotton, for the office), and drawstring pants (for lounging around the campfire).

    Then the earthquake pounded Santa Cruz, and wiped out the manufacture of these wonderful acoutrements. ChiPants struggled to survive, and then died an ugly death. Our beloved pants have slowly been used up, one at a time, with no chance of replacement. Until now. It’s taken this long for Laurence Ostrow to get things up and running again. Check out the web site for a catalog and notification of the bi-monthly sales in San Francisco hosted by Laurence. Check it out. You’ll wonder how you ever sat down at a computer in jeans or Dockers. Trust me.

    TTFN (Ta Ta For Now)

    That’s it for now. It’s been a crazy month and there’s lots in the works for upcoming months. We live in interesting times, what with MacOS 8 and Rhapsody coming to us, several new tools to help us make and maintain web sites, read our mail, and to stay in touch without wires. (Remember, these are all tools for expressing ourselves. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.) Much exciting news happening, waiting to be reported. I’m looking forward to bringing it to you.

    Michael

    and his cats Copernicus and Bleu live in the “bananna belt” of . He needs the warm breezes to motivate him to sit zazen, write these articles, and to ponder the circular state of all things. Check out “the portable dragon” and you’ll see what I mean.

    Have you found errors nontrivial or marginal, factual, analytical and illogical, arithmetical, temporal, or even typographical? Please let me know; drop me . Thanks!

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