Friday, June 29, 2007

Progress is not progressive: the Apple Newton to Palm to iPhone

In honor of the iPhone launch, The Reg has a brief informed review of the Apple's Newton. The only comments I'd add is that $600 in 1993 is about $800 now (inflation adjusted) and that in addition to having workable handwriting recognition the PalmPilot was less about 1/4 the price and 1/3 the size and weight of the Newton. The original PalmPilot was pocketable, affordable, rugged, ultra-reliable, and extremely responsive -- attributes that have been neglected since.

The most interesting part of this essay, however, is that it illustrates a principal that geeks like me, and inventors in general, struggle with on a regular basis. "Progress" is not always progressive. Key functionality can go away, and not return for decades.

The capabilities of the Newton were not only advanced for their day, they are advanced fourteen years later. Yes, in the better part of two decades, moving on to one-fifth of a century, we have not equaled the capabilities of the Newton. In particular, the ways we manage structured data and data relationships has barely changed from the 1980s; the Newton was an attempt at a far more sophisticated approach.

Of course computer scientists know all about this. Hint - never mention Smalltalk (1971) or LISP (1958, the latter inspired parts of the NetwonOS) to one of them. Geeks of a certain generation still bemoan the death of MORE 3.1, GrandView, Agenda, etc. My Samsung i500 had numerous data-oriented capabilities that the iPhone lacks. Nothing syncs with a desktop as well as the original Palm (because one company owned both ends of the sync transaction and, unlike Microsoft, built them together) and no handwriting input environment works as well as Graffiti One.

The sad truth is that what people like me want and need is not what the mass market wants and needs. The Newton was built for me, but, as some point out, that's wee bit of a small market. The Palm was built for me, but that turned out to be a small market after all. And so on.

And so we make do. Even if Apple never adds anything to the iPhone* I'll eventually give up on a vast amount of current capability and adapt to the tools that are available and supported -- even when that's a step backwards.

Bitter lessons!

* I'm hoping they omitted search because they couldn't fit Spotlight into their currently available footprint, cut and paste because something went wrong at the last minute, and task management because they want to sell a "pro" product for more money. I know, I'm pathetic.

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