Part-of-my-Life Computing

In 1993, my Apple PowerBook 170 was stolen from my office. Faced with replacing the machine, I seriously looked for other options as the portability was fantastic, but it was sorely lacking in instant, daily use capabilities.

At that time, I explored the limited pen-based options and almost ended up with an EO. Availability and price kept me out of the EO, and I ultimately settled on a Apple PowerBook Duo 210. Despite the sub-notebook’s benefits, I still could not get the idea of a pen-based, instant-on, part-of-my-life computer out of my mind.

Shortly thereafter, Apple released the first mass-market PDA, the Newton MessagePad. Despite its numerous shortcomings and failed marketing, the technology was exactly what I was looking for – a small, lightweight, instant-on, part-of-my-life computer that could, potentially, work as fast as I could. The key feature (which received a lot of criticism) was the natural handwriting recognition. Once trained, the Newton would have a near symbiotic relationship with the user. It would adapt to the user rather than the user adapt to it. We have come far enough to demand adaptability of technology and Apple was the first to bring that idea to life.

Knowing the limitations of any first-generation product, I waited until Apple released the Newton equivalent of the Macintosh Plus – the MessagePad 120. I picked one up at a developers conference and it immediately changed my life. As expected, I could not live without it. In no time, it started to learn my handwriting and within months, it and I were inseparable. In fact, I trusted the MessagePad more than my new PowerBook 5300.

Like most computer users, I will find any reason for smaller, faster, and better technology. The MessagePad 120 was fine, but it was slow and lacked enough memory for my needs. The next big leap was into the MessagePad 2000 (and at the same time, a desktop platform change to a Dell Latitude laptop and Windows 95). With its speed and storage, the MP2000’s larger size was something I could live with. The operating system improvements were good, the recognition was better with the added speed, and all in all, a fine upgrade. By far, the best pen-based operating system got much, much better, and the future for the little platform looked bright.

Then Apple dropped the platform.

Faced with looming integration issues with my workplace Windows 95 environment, I had to make a tough decision – give up the best handwriting recognition technology and pen-based computer or live with a dying platform with no support and little integration capabilities. In 1998, I turned away from the Newton (actually, I gave it to Kathy where it happily lived on for a time synching to our grape iMac) and looked toward the two other mass-market options – Windows CE or PalmOS.

In the early days of my MessagePad experience, I tried the Graffiti glyph-based recognizer. I hated it. I tried the PalmOS hoping that the recognizer was better. Nope. That left Windows CE. Given the wide array of Windows CE options, I chose to go with the Philips Nino as my replacement PDA (yes, another good company choice). The Nino worked fine, but the handwriting recognizer was not so hot. It had potential, but just did not work the way I wanted it to. Shortly thereafter, I started using the pop-up keyboard for data entry. It was slow, but it worked.

Early in January 2000, my Nino began to exhibit some technical ailments (it was dropped one too many times), so I decided to look at the PDA market again for another option. Eventually, I decided on an HP Jornada 430se based on speed, form factor, size, and of course, color. Unlike the Nino, the Jornada did not have a natural handwriting recognizer. So turning to my tiny, trusty Sony Vaio PCG-505, I began to search for a new recognizer on the Web.

In my opinion, once someone has worked extensively with natural handwriting recognition, it is almost impossible to learn something else. I guess, I just don’t know how people can use something like Jot for letter-by-letter data entry. When I write, I think in phrases – I don’t spell out every word letter-by-letter. How can other people do that? I know I can’t.

Having established that shorthand recognizers are not for me, I searched for something other than a PalmOS wannabe and the less-than-stellar recognizer in the Nino. In my search, I stumbled across CalliGrapher by ParaGraph. Not only was it what I was looking for, but it was the closest thing to Newton handwriting recognition that I have ever seen. I installed the demo and within minutes, my new Jornada was reading my handwriting like my old MessagePad. This software made my PDA useful again.

Since then, I switched to mobile phones (including a Smartphone), back to laptops, tried Tablet PCs, fiddled with iPods but in the end, nothing really was as personal as I wanted. Then the Newton came back — only not as a Newton but as the iPhone. Much to my delight, Apple hadn’t dumped the original idea but only rediscovered it. Although the iPhone isn’t a handwriting-based device, it is quick and easy to use and now with version 2 of the software, able to be personalized.

The idea of a part-of-my-life computer is alive once again. The exciting part is that there seems no turning back and the options will only get better and better over time.