Jeroen Goulooze on Mon, 29 Mar 1999 02:45:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Are computer elites the future?

An example of a computer elite as a vision of a possible future

I see myself as a member of an elite group, and as with all elite groups the reasons for being a member of that group and the reason for the existence of that group can be questioned. Right now I will not ask those questions (but feel free to do so).

The elite group I'm part of is called the Newtonians. You become a member of that group by owning and using a Newton. The Newtonians share one strong believe: they are holding a piece of the future in their hands. 

Two years ago Apple decided to kill the Newton as part of their reorganization (it got 'Steved', as most Newtonians say). For the Newtonians this meant at least one thing: you buy a spare. Some people bought three or four, and some even bought Newtons for their kids. 

Since then several things happened. As I see it I might indeed be holding a piece of the future in my hands. But that is not just the superior hardware or software. It is the simple fact that being a Newtonian means that you are part of a computer elite - working with software nobody else can use that offer functionality nobody else has - and that using an orphaned platform means that you have to be able to help yourself. And most of us do and they also help others. As I see it, the future might bring more machine types, and every machine type might create it's own elite. Computers become more and more a part of our daily live - so we learn how to use and manipulate them more and more. So this might create room for diversity.  One of the arguments to use MS Windows - everybody knows how to use it - might not be that important an argument in the future.
I shall here sketch the outline of an alternative OS as is used on the Newton, and how the users try to keep it working without support from a big company.

I shall first boast a little about this machine - but not to much so I can continue without  much delay to telling what happened after it got Steved. The Newton is a PDA in the true meaning of the word. Because the Newton 2000 I own, can be used as a stand alone machine, all other PDA's seem nice looking toys to me.
Writing an essay on it by hand is no problem (you can also use an attachable keyboard the size of a laptop keyboard, but I never use it). It will learn your handwriting, but I taught it shorthand gestures with the aid of an additional piece of software. I can send and receive faxes on it, do all internet stuff, I can even use it as a webserver so people can log in and grab the info they want. I can start programs (and turn the machine off) by writing a letter. If I write "call John" or "mail John" no matter where on my screen and I write the letter "A" (Assist) in a tiny window on my button bar, my machine finds all the people whose name is "John" and tries to mail them or phone them (the dialing can be done by holding the telephone near the speaker). I can use it as a memo recorder or interview recorder (sound quality from 1k to 6k per sec). GSP possibilities are part of the hardware, it can hold two pcmia cards, has a strongarm 160Mhz risk processor and it fits in my inside !
pocket (if you have big pockets).  When I have an appointment the recorded sound of my children's voices jell at me when the alarm goes of.

When it got axed two years ago, a number of things happened. The development of a lot of software has stopped and the support went down. Text to speech is available (English only) but it was never officially released by Apple. Speech to text was on its way, but never saw the light.

I could play Battleship with another Newtonian by using the infrared port, but the only Newtonians I know are on the internet. They are on newsgroups (comp.sys.newton.misc and others), on mailing lists (, on the Newton Webring ( Support went down. So people have formed a community to try to take over that what has disappeared. That includes support for software and hardware. Most questions are answered by other users (from simple software questions and testing of new pcmia ethernet cards to questions about crashing machines or specialised programing problems). There are still new software titles being developed - shareware, freeware and commercial. The most recent: Hemlock (Sherlock on the the Newton), Newton prolog a.k.a. the handheld brain, an Open GL 3D-engine and a mod player.
Most of this is done in the spare time of people who have a full daytime job. Some programmers started programming for other platforms like WinCE but out of love for the beauty of the Newton they still code for it, or answer questions of all sorts.

But there already are some shortages, like in a war zone cut off from supplies. Some companies stopped their suport for the Newton and their software titles have been made  freeware or open source, but some companies have disappeared without a trace (as with the makers of a tool to link your device to digital camera's).
Some users were smart enough to realize a lot of sites where disappearing - with both software and info. One of them downloaded the most important sites and burned it on CD-roms that can be ordered by him. Others made archives on http and ftp addresses.
There are plans for a site that sells software for companies that want to drop their Newton products. But most software needed to keep our machines working in the future is still being supported and developed.

And then there are the tiny gadgets you need. The makers of a protective sheet for the screen has stopped production. One of the users has found a way to produce his own, and will start supplying other users.  Some models need a special dongle to connect to a desktop machine. But with that it is hope and pray you don't loose yours, since nobody makes them anymore. Though there are plans to for a dongle killer - but it is still a bit to expensive.

The Newton is not affected by the y2k bug but somewhere near 2010 the internal clock rolls over. Someone already has made a patch to prevent possible troubles. By then the biggest problem will probably be the LCD-screens: the contrast goes down with age. Maybe Dr Newton - a user upgrading and repairing newtons in his spare time - has by then found a good replacement for it.
By then the possibility exists other PDA's are on the market that have hardware as good as the Newton. 

All hopes are fixed on Apple to come with a new PDA. Rumors can be heard about the P1, the domain name (a site that used to contain rumors about a new Apple PDA) has recently been bought by Apple. But all Newton users gnash their teeth when yet another rumor is heard about the new Apple PDA being a palm-pilot like machine made by 3Com. Apple has the technology to create a PDA that eats other PDA's for breakfast, but refuses to use it. 

It is not just the hardware Newton users want. People are complaining they don't have Newton functionality on their desktop machines. The file manager at the heart of the system is a freeform database. Texts, names, dates, etc are stored in soups, where every file has a record called a frame. A frame uses name-value pairs to store data, where the value can be anything: a string, a number, a date, a vector drawing, a binary, a bitmap. But it could also hold an array, or another record (another frame), or an array of frames. On the surface the Newton seems to use the pen and paper metaphor for it's OS, but underneath that surface something else is happening. Most databases use the pen and paper metaphor one way or another. As on a piece of paper, in most databases it is impossible to store a record in a field where one of the fields in the nested record can hold an array of records, but on the Newton you can. In that way the OS makes it possible to create programs that use info !
created by other programs and add their own info to it as separate fields. So a record in the names-database could hold information about all appointments (calender-program) you've had with that person and a link to all e-mails, faxes, calls and texts (at least four different programs) that concern that person. 
That is one of the reasons people are trying to develop an Open Source Newton OS (Open Hand). The Gnuton is one of them ( Dave Arnold - who is working on the Gnuton -states that the hardware parts needed to create a Newton like machine only cost a few hundred dollars. On his site he gives a couple of links to promising PDA's. The initial development he is doing is done for a desktop machine running Linux with a Wacom tablet instead of a keyboard as the main input device. 

If the attempts to create an Open Hand Newton are successful, one could imagine a shop where you can buy a PDA and that has a shelve with ROM-chips you can choose from to select the OS that controls the hardware. That is a vision shared by some of the users.
Unfortunately, the people working on the Open Hand projects do not have much info to go on. When the Newton OS saw the light several years back, developers asked Apple to release the API because they saw the possibilities for it to grow as a platform independant programming environment as Java is today, but they never did it. That's a pity, and one of the reasons is that Newton script - a C++ like programming environment for the Newton OS - offers the possibility to perform tasks with a little amount of memory that would be memory hungry in other environments.

Recently Apple made part of their MacOSX server software open source. So Newton users started yet another plea to make the Newton-OS open source,  too. But it is very unlikely this will happen. Parts of the Newton OS are licensed to Apple by other companies, the HWR-engines is probably of great importance for a future PDA by Apple and quickdraw is part of the OS (not likely to be made open source).

Computers changed our lives and different types of computers can change peoples lives in different ways. On the Newtontalk-mailinglist one of the topics for discussion was whether or not it is allowed for priests to use a Newton while giving a sermon (the bible is available as a Newton-book with the title "The message"). Some priests said they did, one of person saw his first Newton in church in the hands of the priest there.
A part of my live I have lived half on the streets as a squatter punk. Now I'm back on the streets with this device and sit down wherever I want to write or to work on a program. Sometimes I sit down to write in places like McDonalds. Given my past I'm not really a part of the crowd that goes there, and people can sense that. Their looks tell me that I don't really belong there. But then I take my device out of my pocket and start jotting down notes or pieces of a program. And the attitude of the crowd changes. They can see what I'm holding in my hands, they have heard about stuff like that, they knew it was possible, but they thought it belonged to the years to come. People serving drinks in bars take a glance at the screen to see what it is, to see what I'm doing and they are much more friendly afterwards.

I'm definitely going to buy a spare Newton. And if the future brings a new and better PDA I might consider migrating to another platform to become a member of another elite. But I don't know when that will hapen.

Jeroen Goulooze

The Gnuton project:

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