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Celebrating the iPhone's Newtonian past

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As Apple begins handing out its wunderkind one can't help but be reminded of its last foray into mobile computing: the Apple Newton.

It's easy to dismiss the Newton as the iPhone's retarded uncle, to blame its failure on dodgy handwriting recognition and an undeveloped PDA market. But to do so is to belittle a device which was as revolutionary and innovative as the iPhone claims to be, and whose failings may yet plague its descendent.

The iPhone is being touted on the basis of its new interface, based around multi-touch technology. Multi-touch is nothing new. This article is being typed on a FingerWorks keyboard that uses the same technology Apple has put into the iPhone to provide much the same functionality. The Newton featured, if anything, an even more innovative gesture-recognition interface which caused scribbled-out words to vanish in a puff of smoke, and deleted documents to be rolled up and thrown into the bin, all with suitable sound effects.

Both devices were a triumph of usability. Using the Newton was as easy as using a pad of paper. The iPhone may offer more functionality, but accessing functions was just as easy on the Newton.

The innovations in the Newton went well beyond the user interface. Applications could talk to each to other and even access each other's data records (known colloquially as "soup"), and the broad range of third-party applications available were seamlessly integrated to the point where it was hard to identify where one application finished and other began.

The iPhone won't support third-party applications - it hasn't so much as a Java Virtual machine to its name - but Apple is promising downloadable enhancements, and additional capabilities, which we can expect to be well integrated into the experience.

The difficulty of inputting text certainly didn't help the Newton, though initial reports seem to indicate the iPhone shares some of the pain there. What killed the Newton was its price, and its size.

When creating the Palm Pilot Jeff Hawkins famously had a wooden replica of the device made. He understood that size was everything when it comes to what people will carry around with them. These days selling a phone which won't fit into the front pocket of a pair of jeans is next to impossible, as Nokia discovered with the 7700 (and 7710).

The Newton was way too big to fit into all but the most expansive pocket, reducing it to briefcase-or-folio-accessory. At knocking a thousand dollars it was also way too expensive. Executives might carry a bag with them, but the iPod generation wants pocketible gadgets that won't break the line of their baggies.

Far be it for us to suggest that the iPhone will go the way of the Newton, but we'll keep some space on the shelf, beside our Newton MessagePad, just in case the iPhone turns out to be a pretty face on a too-big box.®

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