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The write stuff

E-mail: Apple's first Newton won poor marks for handwriting. Will its new Messagepad work better? By Cliff Joseph
Few computer products can have suffered as much ridicule in recent years as Apple's Newton. Intended as a kind of electronic Filofax and notebook, Apple hoped that the Newton would create a new category of computer product which it referred to as the "personal digital assistant".

The key feature that was supposed to make the Newton different from other hand-held computers was its handwriting recognition. Instead of using a keyboard, the Newton had a small stylus that allowed the user to write on to its screen. It would then translate your writing into a text file that it could store in its memory.

Unfortunately, the handwriting recognition in the first Newton was so unreliable that it was virtually useless. The device was slated in newspapers and magazines worldwide, and even earned a few mocking appearances in the Doonesbury cartoon strip.

Last year, the company came out with an improved version, called Newton 2.0. The handwriting recognition was vastly improved and encouraged Apple to continue further development. Now Apple is about to launch two new Newton products that take the technology even further.

The first, called the Messagepad 2000, looks very similar to the original Newton. The screen has been rotated by 90 degrees to make it wider and easier for writing on, but the most important differences are all inside. The computer chip used in the original Newton products was designed by a British company called Advanced RISC Machines (ARM). This has been replaced by a new chip called StrongARM, jointly developed by ARM and the Digital Equipment Corporation.

The StrongARM chip is eight times faster than its predecessor, making the handwriting recognition much more responsive. The screen resolution has also been increased, allowing it to display more complex graphics. New Internet software has been built into it so that the new MessagePad can even be used to view the pages of the World Wide Web.

The StrongARM chip is also powerful enough to perform digital sound recording. You can record spoken messages and store them in memory, ready to be played back whenever you want. These new features make the MessagePad a much more versatile and useful device than before, and it's certainly no longer the laughing stock it used to be.

It's also more expensive, though. The new MessagePad will cost pounds 800-pounds 900, so Apple will initially attempt to sell it to specialist business and technical users. But to get the Newton technology used more widely, Apple plans to produce less expensive designs aimed at particular types of users.

With that in mind, the second device, provisionally called the E-Mate 300, is less expensive and has been designed specifically for use in schools.

The E-Mate is a genuinely eye-catching piece of industrial design. In a complete departure from all the other Newton designs, it is a clam-shaped unit, complete with a moulded handle that makes it look more like a handbag than a computer. The upper part of the unit is semi-transluscent and folds open to reveal a keyboard and a larger screen. Returning to a keyboard might seem like a backward step, but the E-Mate is primarily intended to be used on a classroom desk rather than as a hand-held device. The stylus is still there, though, if anyone does want to use the machine's handwriting recognition abilities.

The E-Mate comes with a built-in wordprocessor and drawing program as well as Internet software, so it will function as a complete mini-computer that can be used for writing essays and reports and for surfing the Internet.

It doesn't have a microphone for digital recording, so the E-Mate can use a less expensive version of the original ARM chip. Apple estimates that its price will be "well under $1,000 in the US", which means approximately pounds 500-pounds 600 in the UK.

Apple recognises that the bureaucracy involved in selling computers to UK schools means that the E-Mate may take time some time to gain acceptance. However, the device costs considerably less than a conventional PC, and if Tony Blair wins the general election E-Mate might fit in nicely with his plans for connecting schools to the Internet and giving pupils access to computers.

Who knows, after the launch of E-Mate, Apple might be rooting for a Labour victory.