Voice Card  -  Volume 30  -  John Card Number 12  -  Wed, Jan 5, 1994 8:53 AM

You have probably seen an ad or two about the Newton or seen it featured in Doonesbury. The Newton is Apple's latest new gadget, a "PDA" or personal digital assistant. It's a little black box with a screen you can write on. It tries, valiantly but not always successfully, to read your handwriting, and it can fax and e-mail and even "beam" notes, drawings, and appointments.

Thanks to the pre-Christmas generosity of my parents, I have acquired a Newton of my own and in December attended the first Newton Developer's Conference in Santa Clara. There were over a thousand hardcore programmers, developers, dreamers, and gadgeteers in attendance (many of whom were beaming electronic business cards back and forth), lots of free food and gifts, important speakers, and all the information we could hope to process in two days. It was a blast - and very informative. My goal is to learn how to program this thing because I think it is the beginning of a new technology that will be commonplace by the end of the decade.

It's an expensive little toy (about $800) but despite it's quirks I really like it. Apple has been quietly working on this contraption for five years and there's an attention to detail that is truly wonderful. You really have to use one for awhile to understand what it is and what it can do. So far I've been using mine primarily to take notes for my back and forth tapes with Paul, play solitaire, manage grocery lists (the items disappear from the screen with a POOF as I drop them in my basket), beam maps of how to find my house to other Newton-toting friends, and read Sherlock Holmes stories in bed (using an itty bitty booklight so I won't wake Betsy).

The Newton's handwriting abilities (or lack thereof) have received a lot of press. The Newton tries to read handwriting at the word level, that is, it guesses words, not individual letters. It comes with a 10,000 word dictionary which you expand as you go by teaching it new words. It also learns about your individual handwriting, what order you tend to make the strokes which form each letter, whether you prefer cursive or block printing, how closely together you space your letters, etc.

With a little training it's accuracy is about 90%. I can sometimes jot down the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address in my own particularly bizzare handwriting with perfect recognition, but usually I have to correct one or two words. It's easy to correct words and drag them around the screen and change fonts or styles, but the Newton is not intended to be used as a word processor. It works best in situations where you just tap it to check checkboxes and maybe enter a phone number or two. You can set the time, for example, by drawing a big hand and a little hand on a clockface.

One feature which works surprisingly well is the "Newton book." It is possible to distribute and read hypertext documents on the Newton, complete with illustrations, tables of contents and indices (just tap and go), even animations and sound effects. You wouldn't think reading words on a cramped LCD screen would be very pleasant, but I've found it makes a marvelous electronic book. As I said in my Wired review (see VC 30 John 2), there are already hundreds of programs and stories available online. I think there's going to be an explosion of electronic book titles in the next few years.

One experiment I hope to make this month is putting part of a voice volume (pictures and all) into my Newton. I don't think the Newton in it's current form would be appropriate for entering voice cards, but it would be great at reading them. By the end of the decade I hope to dictate a voice card about my bet with Roger by simply speaking to my Newton and beaming the results directly to Roger's Newton.

The next few years should prove interesting.