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First Look: Newton OS 2.0

From Pen Computing #7 December 1995

When Apple introduced the Newton Operating System a little over two years ago it was the subject of a great deal of criticism. The Newton was even spoofed by Gary Trudeau's Doonsberry character for a week. Much of this was probably due to the amount of pre-launch hype coming out of Apple. Everyone wanted a hand held system and everyone wanted it to work. The desire for such a system was so strong that no shipping product could possibly hope to fulfill the expectations.

Apple seems to have learned a lesson from all of this and has kept a tight lid on information about version 2.0 of the Newton Operating System (NOS), code named "Dante". In this article, we provide an overview of NOS 2.0. The unit reviewed was a MessagePad 120 running a candidate for "Gold Master" release of the new operating system. This is significant since it means that all of the MessagePad 120s can be upgraded via a chip swap. MessagePad 110, 100 and original MessagePad owners do not appear to have an upgrade path.

If you ask anyone who has used a Newton device extensively what their main gripes are you will hear a variety of complaints. Most people complain about the handwriting recognition system and how they can't get 100% recognition (most don't understand the complexity of this problem). People are also disappointed with the speed that the software runs. Loading a few hundred names and filing them in different categories is sure to bring your Names file to a crawl. People complain about how the applications don't seem well integrated. With the exception of "Intelligent Assistance", the Names and Dates applications don't really interact with one another as elegantly as they should. Finally, some things that should be easy to do simply are not. Creating a new note by drawing a line across the notepad is simple in theory. In practice, one has about a 50/50 chance of getting a new note as opposed to a picture of the line they just drew.

Handwriting Recognition
The new Newton Operating System uses two different engines for handwriting recognition. The system for recognizing cursive text is much improved over the old system. It is still dictionary based but seems to default to letter by letter recognition if a certain confidence level using word based recognition is not met. Also, the user no longer has to add each word to the dictionary as they are encountered. The Newton now stores new words in a buffer. The user can edit this buffer at a later time and add words to the dictionary.

The real breakthrough in handwriting recognition is in the recognizer for printed text. This recognizer was developed internally at Apple and is truly marvelous. Provided that the user prints each letter distinct from its neighbors the recognizer works with amazing accuracy. The only trouble I encountered was when I ran letters together such as the word "to" when I cross the "t" in the same stroke as the "o" is written. This recognizer does not rely on any dictionaries for recognition so that names and technical terms can be recognized without any user training. This recognizer is not "trained" so it should read your writing out of the box as well as it ever will. Any improvements to recognition will be because the user is adjusting his or her handwriting.

Previously, there was no indication of where a word would appear on the Newton's screen when handwriting recognition was being used. This lead to inconsistent data entry. With NOS 2.0, there is a caret shaped cursor that shows where the next word will be inserted. One moves the caret with a single tap and can then write anywhere on the screen confident that the word will appear in the correct position. Tapping on the caret pops up a menu of difficult to enter punctuation marks.

In previous versions of the Newton Operating System, one could recognize text, shapes or record "digital ink". The recognizers for each of these systems could be active at any time so that it was up to the operating system to decide if you were drawing a circle or writing the letter "o". Apple explained that user research indicated that few people need to record multiple type of data at any one time so they made the choice of recognition a single choice of 4 types: Text, Ink Text, Shapes or Sketches.

The new addition to the recognition family, Ink Text, is meant to be used for deferred recognition. Using Ink Text, each word is recorded as it is written and inserted in the position indicated by the caret. This is in itself different from the current digital ink model but in addition, the ink text is scaled to a point size and can have formatting such as bold, italic and underline applied to it. Ink text can also be cut and pasted within text or other ink text such that the words flow and re-wrap.

Finally, another handy addition to the recognition system is the ability to program in "macros". One might write an abbreviation on the screen and have it automatically expanded to some verbose text.

System-wide changes
At first glance the experienced Newton user will note that the default font is new. Apple has created a friendlier sans serif font named "casual". This font is still easy to edit on screen but has a softer and less utilitarian feel to it than the "Fancy" and "simple" fonts that were the only choices available to users under version 1.x.

Preference used to be accessible only through the "Prefs" icon in the Extras drawer. Many preferences still reside there but now some are readily accessible from the application that call on them. For example, anywhere the recognition toggle is available, the user can pull up the preferences for fine tuning handwriting recognition. The Notes, Names and Dates applications each have their own preferences so that the user can specify where, on a application by application basis, to store new items.

The Notepad
The Notepad sports a host of new user friendlier features and a means for third party developers to provide added value by incorporating their own programs into it. The default name for a note is still the date and time that it was created. However, tapping on the notepad icon at the upper left corner of each note now gives the user the opportunity to name this particular note as well as see when it was created, how much memory it uses, and whether it resides in internal memory or on a memory card. Tapping the overview button displays the names of the notes in a much faster manner than under 1.x.

Moving a note is also much easier now. Under version 1.x, the user had to move their pen up and down in the vicinity of the upper border of the note in the hopes that the border would move. Usually, they just got a bunch of up and down lines recorded on the notepad. Under NOS 2.0 tapping and holding the pen on the upper border of a note results in an audible feedback as well as the border becoming highlighted. Once highlighted, the user can move a note up or down.

One can still create a new Notepad entry by drawing a horizontal line across the screen. The Notepad status bar now sports a "New" button. Tapping on this button allows the user to create a new Notepad entry. However, one sees that there are two new types of entries available. The user can now create a collapsible outline or a checklist with outline hierarchy in the Notepad.

The addition of new types of entries in the Notepad demonstrates a new concept known as "stationery". Through stationery, Apple gives third party developers the opportunity to add their own data types into the built in applications. Stationery is also available in the Names file where a developer could add fields such as car type or favorite color to a person's file or even an entire new class of objects to be inserted in the names file (the built in choices are person, company or group). A developer might choose to create a new type of entry called "Patient" which would essentially be a person type entry with the addition of a variety of medical information.

The nicest addition to the Names application is that there are no longer a static number of fields available for each entry. A person can now have many addresses, phone numbers or email addresses associated with their entry. The Names application is also where the most dramatic speed improvements can be seen. It used to be that if a user had several hundred names filed into different categories they could grow impatient waiting for the overview list of names to build. No longer is this the case, the application is definitely snappier.

The Datebook now supports a variety of data entry types. These are: Meeting, Weekly Meeting, Event, Multi-Day Event, Annual Event, or To Do Task. Each of these types of events now has its own icon as well as it's own set of data to be collected. Events that involve people now let the user select one or more persons from a rolodex type listing of the Names application. A variety of new calendar and time pickers make data entry simple without relying on handwriting recognition. Tapping on the month in the calendar now lets the user jump to any of the 12 adjacent months. The daily schedule is now scrolled using up and down arrows onscreen. Using the hard icon scroll arrows at the bottom of the MessagePad screen now scrolls the date. I found this feature to be particularly annoying. If I want to jump to another date, I'd just as soon tap on it on the calendar.

Extras Drawer
The Extras Drawer now supports filing and scrolling. It seemed like with the original MessagePad, the designers never thought that a user would have more then twenty applications. Under NOS 2.0, the user can create categories of applications to file applications within. Two of the default categories for filing are "Storage" and "Extensions". These now allow the end user to see "autoparts" (programs without icons) and "soups" (data files) that were not available to the casual end user under version 1.x.

The Extras Drawer can display unfiled application or all applications and can be scrolled up and down when the number of applications overflows the screen. Users can also select to view only those icons that reside on internal memory on a memory card. Application icons can be dragged and dropped to re-order the Extras Drawer. Icons can be selected singly or many at once for filing, deleting, changing stored location and, yes, beaming.

Another welcome addition to the Extras Drawer status bar is the "Rotate" button. Tapping on this button rotates the view on the MessagePad clockwise ninety degrees. Applications must support rotation to operate in landscape setting. If an application does not support rotation the user will be given the option of running the application in the 1.x orientation or aborting the launch of the program.
Selecting "Memory Info" from the "info" button on the Extras Drawers status bar now allows the user to select what built in application to make the "Backdrop" application. Under 1.x the backdrop or bottom layer was always the Notepad. Under NOS 2.0 one can make the Names, Dates or Extras drawer the backdrop.

The Calls application
Gone is the Sharp icon from the Extras drawer. It has been replaced by a "Calls" application which allows one to log phone calls and take notes. The party called can be selected from the Names application or added to the Names file from within the Calls application.

New hardware
With the introduction of NOS 2.0, Newton devices can now accept input via a keyboard. The Newton keyboard is a bit longer and wider than the MessagePad 120. To use it the user simply puts the MessagePad to sleep, plugs the keyboard into the serial port and turns the MessagePad back on. Text is inserted as directed by the insertion caret.

A cornucopia of solutions
The launch of version 2.0 of the Newton Operating System should be a grand event spanning many months. Aside from the new operating system and keyboard, we should be seeing early third party applications that take advantage of the new features of NOS 2.0. Developers will be getting tools like a Power PC native version of Newton Toolkit and the Newton Toolkit for Windows. Answering the demands of the masses, Apple is preparing to ship a standalone BookMaker tool so that the end user can create Newton Books with graphics, indexing and hyper-linking. A new backup utility will allow Newton devices to mount a desktop hard drive and browse the directories for packages to download.

Many people ask me why I ever stopped practicing medicine to develop Newton solutions. With the introduction of version 2.0 of Newton Intelligence, I hope the answer will be more clear. Medicine is an industry that cannot survive without adopting bold new technologies. Apple has made it clear that it is serious about its commitment to Newton and that the PDA market is more than a passing fancy. I never had a doubt.
- Vernon Huang, M.D.

Vernon Huang, M.D. is a principal in Tactile Systems, Inc. He consults on the uses of PDA's in medicine and lives in the Seattle area.

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