Apple's recent discontinuation of its Newton MessagePad marks a sad end for a pioneering device: the handheld computer. Apple coined the term personal digital assistant, or PDA, just for the Newton. The intense hype surrounding the Newton put this product category on the map -- and also set expectations that the initial product could not meet.
Ironically, Newton's end comes just as handheld computers are beginning to take off. Despite Newton's failure, the PDA concept remains sound. As PCs have become increasingly central to the lives of many people, having a portable device that can serve as an extension of your PC -- or possibly an alternative to a PC -- is a compelling notion. Dissection of Newton's demise, however, can provide a useful backdrop for evaluating the current contenders.
One source of Newton's failure was Apple's concept of it as a stand-alone device, rather than a Mac or PC accessory. Apple provided software to synchronise information between a Newton and a Mac or PC, but this software was abysmal in its first version and advanced to merely poor in later versions.
Unfortunately, Newton never reached critical mass, in that there were not enough units sold for Apple to justify a continuing investment. If only Apple had created a wider range of devices and promoted them more effectively, it might have been able to capitalise on its pioneering technology. Now, however, the handheld market is in the hands of two more-recent entrants: 3Com's Palm Pilot and Microsoft's Palm-size PC (originally called Palm PC, but changed to the more awkward name after a lawsuit from 3Com).
The Palm Pilot, with well over 1 million units sold, is the first handheld computer to reach critical mass. The Pilot does not try to do nearly as much as Newton did, but what it does -- essentially a personal organiser, for most users -- it does well. It is small enough to fit in a pocket, it is comparatively inexpensive, and it synchronises easily with PC-based information. Instead of handwriting recognition, it uses the Graffiti synthetic alphabet. This approach requires the user to spend a few hours learning a slightly modified alphabet, but once this investment in time is made, it enables fast and accurate recognition using a modest microprocessor.
The Pilot's major competitors will be devices based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, which recently has been revised for the palm-size devices. The first-generation Windows CE devices, which use a 'clamshell' design and have small keyboards but no handwriting recognition, have been only modestly successful. Like the Newton MessagePad, these handheld PCs are too big to fit in a pocket. The new palm-size derivative is aimed directly at the Pilot, with a similar size and a similar set of functions.
The Pilot has the early lead, with a significant base of loyal users. Palm-size devices based on Windows CE are just emerging, and they initially will lack the maturity of the Pilot. In the long run, however, the Windows CE systems will be formidable challengers.
Indeed, the Macintosh vs. Windows parallel is striking again. The Pilot was a venture into new territory, but it is essentially proprietary (although IBM is licensed to make the device as well). Microsoft's alternative imitates many of the best ideas from the Pilot, adds additional features, and is licensed to multiple hardware developers.
3Com must move quickly to keep the Pilot one step ahead by building its user base and seeking additional licensees if it is to survive Microsoft's persistent onslaught. Its biggest challenge will be in making the Pilot a true application platform, rather than just an organiser. Although third-party applications exist, Microsoft has the advantage of richer programming tools and, of course, Windows.