The Invisible Newton: How great designs become appliances
©Copyright 1996 David MacNeill
Note: To celebrate the release of the MessagePad 130 with its doubled heap memory size, this edition of Newton Notes will consist of one 650 word note.
For reasons that no one would want to read about in a computer magazine, I have moved many times in the past three years. As a result, I have had the opportunity to hear comments from a wide variety of people concerning my one constant companion during this time: a Newton MessagePad.
From the fast food cashier in Mt Shasta who marveled at the science fiction-like pen interface; to the Oregon housewife who was amazed to see me plug my modem-equipped Newton into her kitchen phone jack; to the Nevada desert feed store manager who thought I was a government agent come to audit him with a tricorder; to the pretty young opticians assistant in Sacramento who called my Newton "a neat toy" then looked at me strangely when I told her that toy was paying for my new Ford Explorer in the parking lot and all my other bills as well, every one of them had a different take on this compelling little device, and each had different questions to ask about its capabilities.
For the first few years it was fun to be in the vanguard, a roaming Newton evangelist who would cheerfully demo the thing to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Then a funny thing happened. The Newton merged itself so completely with my life that it became invisible, like a toaster.
Suddenly, when I brandished my Newton in public I found myself oblivious to the questioning words and glances of the curious souls around me. My stock answer became "Its just a pen-based computer made by Apple called Newton." Then Id slip it back in its case and get on with my life.
At first I felt guilty about this. Was I now so jaded that I couldnt be bothered to share my enthusiasm? I secretly wondered if perhaps the Newton was now simply less formidable than it once was. Neither are true. Only recently have I come to realize that the best way to give people a glimpse of their PDA-enhanced future is to show them that its really no big deal, just business as usual. Handheld wireless web browsing? Total personal information management? Email and send/receive fax connections in your coat pocket? Effortless information capture with intelligent integration with desktop computer software? Fantastic handwriting recognition out of the box? Digital money? Big deal. Whats for dinner?
I remember reading years ago in The Last Whole Earth Catalog a writer complaining that he knew the revolution was over when he saw just how boring the ecologically conscious and politically correct new breed of hippie businessperson was becoming. When suits started eating granola for breakfast, he moaned, the spark of being different was gone. Of course, the Newton and other PDAs are still far from being as ubiquitous as granola. However, for those like myself who have fully incorporated the PDA concept into their lives it just feels normal to have one with you always, like a set of keys.
Unlike that disillusioned writer from the seventies, Im not complaining. Somewhere in the natural progression from radically brilliant new idea to invisible appliance, there is a point at which those who care about such things can discern that something wild just became domesticated, and that it is just as well. When a truly great product is ready for a mass audience (or the other way around), nothing can stop its inexorable descent into the realm of the commonplace thing.
No matter. The magic is still there; we all just take it for granted because it works.
David MacNeill <email@example.com> is Senior Editor of Pen Computing Magazine. He currently lives in Folsom, California with a Newton, a PowerBook, five guitars, and a pink Norwegian leather recliner.