NEWTON: Where Goest Thou....


The term Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) was coined by Apple Computer with the introduction of the Newton at the MacWorld tradeshow in 1993. The Newton 100 was unveiled by Michael Spindler, then-CEO of Apple Computers, as the beginning of a new era in mobile computing. Apple projected selling a million units -- and 80,000 actually shipped. That was three years and three models ago, and they question still remains -- will PDAs ever make it to the mass market?

Many of the technical challenges that plagued early PDAs, such as poor handwriting recognition, poor connectivity, and short battery life, have been addressed to bring performance to an acceptable level. But still, PDAs have only gained modest market acceptance. This paper will look at the PDA in terms of whether they will ever break the mass market, and attempt to identify the major issues which are conditions of its widespread acceptance.

    First, a Little History

The 1993 debut of Apple Computer's Newton Technology was to be a major milestone in the era of mobile computing. Instead of hauling around a $2,500 laptop, the mobile professional could use the message pad to check e-mail, contact information and schedules at a third of the price and eighth of the weight. The Newton 100 had a $600 price tag, and a pen based handwriting recognition system, rather than a keyboard.

In 1993, it was the subject of conversation at every Silicon Valley cocktail party -- first, widely regarded as an exciting breakthrough, then as an industry joke. It became the butt of a week's worth of satire on Doonesbury and lampoons by Saturday Night Live, particularly for its often humorous misreading by the handwriting recognition software. The Newton and its competitors suffered from being either a bulky pocket organizer or a watered-down laptop. Shortly after its rollout in 1993, the Newton discovered its own version of marketing gravity-- it plummeted.

Why it Bombed? And why its still here....

What happened? The first Newtons were widely regarded as technology in search of a problem. Part of the failure was the marketing approach. "People looked at it and said, "What is it, and why do I want it?" 1 Moreover, the marketing for the Newton put out a message that the technology could not deliver upon -- the handwriting recognition, battery power problems, and lack of integration with the desktop, made the Newton more of a productivity impediment, rather than a productivity enhancement.

Even after its disastrous introduction, Apple continued to invest in the technology. Subsequent releases of the hardware for the 110, 120, and 130 and software and system upgrades resolved many of the most pressing problems with the battery life, handwriting recognition and desktop connectivity. Also, the chips embedded in Newtons and their competitors have seen exponential growth in power and versatility, whereas their power requirements have dropped. The orignal Newton 100 used the ARM 610 running at 20 MGHZ. In the past 15 months, the ARM chip used has increased power 10-fold, and how have the equivalent power of a Prentium 150 to 165 while running on just four AA batteries. Chip prices have also plummeted allowing increasingly powerful chips to be used in these applications.

    Newtons Create a Niche...

Despite advances in the technology, the Newton has not gained wide market acceptance. In 1995, 1 million PDAs shipped versus 45 million cellular phones. However, recently, interest in the PDA market has re-emerged. Partly because of wide acceptance of another entrant in the market, the US Robotics Pilot, but partly also because Newtons and their competitors have started to carve out a niche market with work groups and mobile workers. Innovative users, progress in wireless technology and LANs, and creative applications by third party developers have created new markets for the Newton. Three out of five Newtons shipped in 1995 were used in field operations, with the remaining were used as personal organizers.

    Newton Applications Today

Whereas the marketing department for the Newton failed to make a compelling case for the Newton, users were more innovative. Early deployment of wireless LANs in the vertical Mac markets of education, medicine and manufacturing have paved the way for a future wave of Newtons in areas where information collection and timely updating of records is critical.

    Two Innovative Field Uses

      Taco Bell

In 1993, Taco Bell integrated PDA technology into their food safety and audit systems division for its 4,500 outlets. Inspectors enter their observations directly into Newtons, create reports on portable printers, and transfer notes automatically into a file in a central system at the end of each day. Previously, the 100+ inspectors took notes by hand. Notes were re-transcribed them into the computers main system by other workers and updates of the system typically took over a week before report copies reached the outlet manager. Management opted for a less expensive, more portable Newton system, over a PC solution. The Newton based system has streamlined operations and allowed real time updates for management.

At Shands Teaching Hospital in Gainesville, Apple are replacing the multiple mini-reference books and ragged patient index cards that for so long have cluttered doctor's and intern's pocket space.

The Apple Newton Message Pads have captured the greatest interest with a unique graphical user interface exploiting handwriting recognition and tap navigation. Tapping eliminates the clumsy cursor behaviour and allows users to actually point and tap their way through a program. Currently the Newton is able to manage a host of reference books including the "Little Black Book of Primary Care Pearls", the "Current Clinical Strategies Series", "The 5 MinuteClinical Consultant", and "Complete Pharm Reference."

Patient tracking programs are also being revamped using the Newton. The "Pocket Doc" is leading the way in patient data management. Information can be entered into a patient database by writing it onto the screen. Alternatively, one can follow prompts to literally tap in an exhaustively complete H and P. The information can be faxed, printed, or (infrared) beamed at a later time.

"Newt's Cape" allows users to create true Newton Books from HTML files. University of Florida doctors are using this application to create interactive books on clinical topics. 3

    ....While Still Hoping for the Mass Market

However, the desire to capture the mass market has not died, and the original vision of the Newton is starting to become a proposition that Apple can finally deliver upon. The Newton 130 coupled with the Newton Internet Enabler finally made an internet acess on a Newton viable, and the Newton 2000 due out in 1997 is anticipated to improve this link.

Over the past 2-3 years, increasing acceptance of the internet and web access has reinvigorated the desire for mobile access and so the demand for a simple, compact communication devices is growing. But the PDAs may have a race to be the one to fulfill this market need. Other contenders are smart phones, personal communicators and even another Apple offering, the eMate. In this race, the PDA has an edge in being more like desktop and thus better suited to the connectivity features that make such devices more than just expensive toys. Most high end PDAs are now well integrated with the desktop. The next step will be seamless integration with wireless LANs and the internet.

    Review of Technology Requirements

PDAs need to live up to stringent technical standards. But despite limitations of size and speed, user requirements and expectations are exceptionally high. The following are the considerations that PDA design must address: 4

Speed and Efficiency - low memory requirement yet near-instantaneous results. Users are not willing to wait as long for results on a handheld as they are on a desktop PC.

Low Power Requirements - A handheld device should always be ready, and should use inexpensive, widely available batteries.

Small form factor - The OS should offer objects that facilitate data-entry in a very small space without the use of a keyboard. Handhelds are rarely used sitting down; one-finger data entry is a worthwhile goal.

Integrated PC Connectivity - The OS should use a basic data structure optimized for communication and synchronization with the desktop.

Standard Application Development Tools - The OS must promote application development using widely, available, well understood tools, thus making a wide range of programming services available to integrators at all levels.

Transparent synchronization with the desktop - Make the process largely invisible to the user. Extensibility. Enable ISVs to create the conduits that link desktop applications to the handheld device.

Communication Independence - Hide the low-level details of interdevice communications from the ISVs, enabling synchronization via a variety of links.

Standard conduit development - Make use of the structure already present in desktop operating systems.

The Newtons are now performing acceptably on most of these dimensions. The latest offering due out in 1997 will further improve their performance. The new 160 MGHZ StrongARM will make the Newton OS run very fast, and also enable the following; real-time handwriting recognition, instant switching among applications, fast scrolling, double the current MessagePad battery life, and eventually voice recognition. What it does not deliver on is an inexpenive and easy wireless communication link -- due in a large part to the lack of affordable service and ubiquitous infrastructure.

    The Next Step to Gain Widespread Acceptance

      Stages of Development

The development of PDAs as a corporate development tool will continue in three stages. The first is exemplified by field uses such as those currently deployed by Taco Bell and the Florida doctors described above. The second stage will be when there is widespread use of cellular communications to access the Internet or corporate local networks with Newtons or similar devices. Some of this technology is already in place, but not yet widely available. The third stage will come when the use of high-band radio wave connective technology, such as that employed by Motorola's Newton add-on hardware Marcos, becomes common.

      Ubiquitous Wireless Infrastructure

One of the shortcomings of the Newtons 100,110, and 120 was its inability to live up to the role of mobile communicator. One of the reasons that PDAs are still on the radar screens of manufacturers is the development in the telecommunication infrastructure that will allow digital wireless communications from virtually anywhere in North America by the end of 1997 using the PCS 1900 standard. PDAs and their ability to transfer data may be a new source of income for many vendors that who have significant marketing muscle, such as Nynex, PacBell Bell, AT&T and other carrier of wireless service. Wireless data is a hot market that the big cellular players will compete for and their competition may change the economics of the PDA market. In fact, many experts think that the cellular phone business model will hold in the data/PDA market, where the revenue stream will be more closely tied to the service, than the equipment. Recall that service providers made the cellular phone ubiquitous by offering phones that retailed originally for $2,000, basically for free with the purchase of a cellular contract. If this business model holds, price barriers for PDAs and other smart communicator devices may also fall paving a road to the mass market.

      Wireless LAN developments

"Will the market go mainstream? The answer is yes, " said Rifaat Dayem, president of wireless research organization Altamont Research of Cupertino, CA. "To the question of 'When?' -- well what's holding back the (wireless LAN) market is a standard, which in turn holds back a chip set that leads to a dramatic cost decrease for users."5 This is the opinion of many who see the Newton expanding its role in the corporate environment. Newtons have the edge on PCs in this arena because of their comparatively low price and small form factor. Wireless LANs will allow the user two way communication with the mainframe or server for kind of a temporally distributed client/server architecture. Newtons would not be limited to the data and the applications that its limited memory will hold.

Proponents of wireless LANs are looking to 1997 and 1998 for rapid acceleration in deployment. The cost per user for wireless network connections runs about $700. With the implementation of the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard, costs per user are expected to drop dramatically and with this drop in cost, you will likely see a significant increase in innovative uses of PDAs in this arena.

      High Band Radio Wave Connective Technology

"This technology will allow massive data transfers between PDAs and office computers. When it becomes widespread, the walls between being in the office and on the road will really break down. It will no longer matter much where one is located."6 Though this has long been the rallying cry to PDA technology, radio wirelss LANs have been well received by early users. According to a BIS report, infrared solutions account for only 15%, with the remaining 85% opt ing for radio based devices. Motorola with its long history in radio and two-way dispatch technology, is pioneering this area with its Marcos, Motorola's add on technology for the Newton. Radio wireless LANs have better range, and their ability to penetrate walls and other obstructions gives them flexibility to go where wires and infrared will not go. Radio solutions use the bandwidth of 900-MHz and 2.4-Ghx. Solutions at 900-MHz have greater range but share bandwidth with cellular transmissions. Another aspect that favors a radio solution is that the infrastructure is already in place: Ardis, a nationwide wireless data network is operational, and other digital companies such as Nextel Communications, are close to completing their nationwide build-out. This may be the low-cost network solution that allows data transmission for the small and medium business.

      To Summarize: Connectivity is Key

The general consensus seems to be that though early PDAs were deservedly ridiculed, the technology has turned the corner in terms of usability. Most agree also that the force to push it into the mass market is not a hardware or software development, though these will continue. Instead, the critical element will be connectivity -- easy and affordable -- which will take the form of digital cellular infrastructure for the mass market, and wireless LANs and High Band Radio for the corporate world. Affordable connectivity will give the Newton a 10X increase in functionality. "Rather than one killer app, it's the killer functionality that wireless offers that is getting people to get creative and imagine what it can do for them." 7

      What else will it take? User acceptance....

Beyond all the technical requirements and infrastucture however, is the basic concept of what it takes to gain user acceptance. There is one area in which, as in English common law, the average man is the best judge of fitness: the User Interface (UI).8 How will the public best "become comfortable" with this technology? When there is a compelling reason to use it, of course -- there is still no "killer app", but another important issue is making the user experience one that is familiar and unintimidating.

The industry is currently in the stage of defining the relationship between the UIs of the handheld and the desktop. Since the PDA's function of data entry and retrieval is similar to the desktop, it may be best suited to maintain a high degree of commonality between the two UIs. Or perhaps, for the sake of widespread adoption, the UI should take a dramatically different route -- towards that of a telephone, as many proponents of smart phones say.

In any case, for PDAs to reach the next level of acceptance, the UI must be designed to appeal to not only the current computer user, but also the vast reservoir of potential users who have resisted the personal computer. In their professional and private lives, these users don't need a full computer, or are priced out of the market. The paper and clipboard crowd is what a mass market PDA needs to aim for -- and making the UI acceptable to this crowd will not be easy.

Perhaps this is the reason for deployment of Newton technology towards the education market. One way to make PDA usage ubiquitous is to "catch them while they are young". A 14-year old "mobile student" today becomes the mobile professional tomorrow. Perhaps the eMate is a teething ring for the next generation of Apple PDA users?

Another consideration is that due to the small form factor, special design issues arise. The screen is considerably smaller, and loading graphic laden pages is not currently feasible. One pioneer company addressing these issues is American Airlines whose site at COMDEX last year wowed the crowd. American Airlines is designing a website suited to small screens, with less lettering and no graphics. Joseph Crawley, Web Master for American says, "The idea is: more thought and less text." Conceptually, PDA browsers can tap into the SABRE computerized reservation system to purchase tickets, access seating arrangements, or get flight arrival/delay information. 2


After three years, many people still look at the PDA industry and ask, "Is this product's evolution a question of technology push, or market pull?" Though it may have started as technology push, the Newton may be a product in the right place at the right time. With the increased reliance on the web and email, and with growing user's expectation of being in touch at all times, the Newton may have turned the technological corner in time to ride the wave of user demand for connectivity that developments in wireless technology will bring in the next year. Whereas smartphones and other appliances are in first generation, the Newton is in fourth, and has at least a two generation advantage on most of its competitors (notably, Microsoft).

PDAs will never replace the PC, but it is a leading candidate to inhabit that nebulous area just below. If advances in wireless technology give the Newton the "killer functionality" that consumers can relate to, and if user interface issues are addressed by developers, Apple has a good chance to position the Newton at the point of convergence between market demand for functionality and advancement in PDA technology. In any case, as the market leader, it is Apple's market to win or lose.


1 "Beefed-up PDAs Back to Kick Sand in the Face of their Critics", San Francisco Business Times, Daniel S. Levine. 1996

2. "Taking technology in hand", Wines, Leslie.Journal of Business Strategy v17, n1 (Jan/Feb 1996):36-40.

3. The Newton, Medical Education and Patient Care.

4. "New Era Dawns for Integrators in Mobile Computing", The Windward Group, Los Gatos, CA

5. "Wireless LANs go Vertical, have yet to hit Mainstream,"The Newsweekly for Macintosh Managers. April Streeter,

6. "Wireless LANs go Vertical, have yet to hit Mainstream", The Newsweekly for Macintosh Managers. Volume 9, Number 9. April Streeter. Quote from Bill Burns, concept development executive at Pharos Technologies Inc.

7. "Wireless LANs go Vertical, Have Yet to Hit Mainstream", The Newsweekly for Macintosh Managers, Volume 9, Number 9. April Streeter

8. "New Era Dawns for Integrators in Mobile Computing", The Windward Group, Los Gatos, CA