Worldwide Newton Conference 2004

I returned Tuesday evening from a month-long trip to Europe. The highlight of the final weekend was the inaugural Worldwide Newton Conference 2004, held at the Hungarian Institute in Paris, France. 8 years ago, I remember practicing Tai-Chi in the mornings right in front of that building! At the time, I had a PowerBook 180 and a Newton MessagePad 100. In 2004, I brought with me a PowerBook G4 12-inch and a Newton MessagePad 2100!

What’s with all the renewed interest in the Newton? It’s arguably still the most advanced mobile computing platform today. The handwriting recognition is still better than anything on the Palm or PocketPC platform today. Software developers have added support ATA storage devices, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, IrDA and OS X, technologies which either didn’t exist or were in their infancy when the Newton was cancelled in 1998. Palm still hasn’t managed to get their own Bluetooth SD card working on Palm OS 5 devices!

All of the speakers did a fantastic job with their presentations. We heard from Newton evangelists, luminaries, and developers on a variety of topics. If you want to learn why the Newton failed, you’ll want to read Roman Pixell’s forthcoming retrospective. Robert Benschop explained how he taught his mother how to use a Macintosh in 5 hours and the Newton in just 15 minutes. A number of the user interface elements, technologies, and ideas behind the Newton are making their way into Mac OS X — Inkwell, data sharing between applications, and screen-size independent applications. Nicolas Zinovieff demonstrated how to connect a Newton natively to an OS X machine with the Desktop Connection Library.

Simon Bell, the creator of the best Newton mail clients around, MailV and SimpleMail, spoke about his NewtonScript interpreter he wrote in C++ and XCode. Eckhart Köppen explained the flexibility and power of the Newton communications architecture and how he created Nitro and Blunt. Elizabeth Garlick told us how she made Newton Books using Newton Press, Newt’s Cape, and Paperback. Frank Gründel took apart an eMate to replace a damaged hinge assembly (the only design flaw in the whole product, he said). I thought taking apart my PowerBook was difficult! Ronnie Simon explained how he used the Newton in the Windows world. Yes, us Mac users live in a bubble oblivious to the fact that we’re only 2-7% of the industry. Our last presenter was Daniel Padilla (fresh off from his wedding in Spain), who showed us how to use Jason Harper’s kick-ass program ViewFrame to hack Newton applications.

I gave the keynote presentation on Saturday morning on the topic of my personal history of the Newton. I took the group from my experience with the Newton, to my forays into Newton development, to the Newton protest that I organized in 1998, and finally to the Newton’s Renaissance in recent years. We’re getting all of the slides, photos, and notes from the conference up on the web and on DVD, so if you couldn’t make the meeting, don’t fret!

The two highlights of the weekend were Larry Yaeger’s presentation on the Newton Print Recognizer (the one that worked) and Paul Guyot’s Einstein presentation. As I’ve said time and time again, the Newton Print Recognizer (not the cursive recognizer from Paragraph) is the best HWR system I’ve ever used. It was fascinating to hear from Larry the theories and techniques they developed to create Rosetta. There’s a balance between word and character recognition in Rosetta. Some of the methods they used hurt individual character recognition but greatly enhanced word recognition. Rosetta (or Mondello) is now called InkWell in Mac OS X. I haven’t gotten used to using InkWell on my computer, primarily due to the fact that there’s no ability (Wacom Cintiq displays notwithstanding) to write directly on the screen on my Macintosh.

The highlight of the conference was Paul Guyot’s demonstration of the Einstein project and emulator. He and Nicolas have been working on this project for the past month or so, but they’ve already gotten a working emulator up and running. Conference attendees were one of the first people to see the Newton OS boot up and run (to the Newton Welcome application) on a Mac OS X machine! I can’t wait to see the emulator running 100% on my Mac in the coming weeks and months.

Einstein is not just the emulator, however, but a project designed to bring the Newton back from the dead. Remember our motto used to be, “Newton never dies, it just gets new batteries.” 6 years after its death, the hardware is getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s too big to carry around with you everywhere (unlike a cellphone). The ability to port the Newton to another hardware platform is very appealing and will be “easier” since many mobile devices are based on the ARM platform. There’s much work to be done, but the Newton community is in a far better position thanks to the work of Nicolas and Paul, than we have been in the past 6 years. Hats off to them! Hats off also to everyone who made the conference possible: Ronnie, Marie (for all the filming), the speakers (it was fantastic putting a face and voice to the names!), and the attendees.

Photos from the conference. We had a picnic with a small group of users on Thursday evening near Pont des Arts and the Louvre, followed by a group dinner on Friday evening at Flam’s near Les Halles. The conference took up two days at the Institut Hongrois in the 6e arrondissement.

I think the Worldwide Newton Conference for 2005 should be held in Cupertino. I’ll help organize!

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