More is less, more or less.
6/5/2008 11:12:55 AM

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that being a pioneer means you are likely to get an arrow up the arse.

In 1993 I was captivated by the hype surrounding the impending arrival of the Apple Newton. It was launched in the US late that year and almost simultaneously in all major world capitals. I had to have one, being an early adopter of such cool gizmos.

From memory, the Newton wasn’t due to arrive in New Zealand until the following April, too late for an eager beaver like me, so being in London in October ‘93 I took the chance to have a test drive. You couldn’t just wander in off the street and buy one; it had to be demonstrated to you by an authorized dealer. The nearest such agent was Harrods, so I duly booked in.

For those who don’t recall, the Apple Newton MessagePad was the first PDA. The pre-publicity told me I could use it to take notes, make a quick sketch, format or print letters, share and synchronize information with my pc, send a fax, receive messages, tap into on-line services or electronic mail. Even exchange business cards with colleagues via built-in infrared technology. And wherever I was, “the powerful, lightweight personal digital assistant” would go too, tucked into my pocket or briefcase.

The ads said it all “…almost as easy to use as pencil and paper, the Newton MessagePad reads your handwriting and transforms it into typed text. If you prefer, you can type words using an on-screen keyboard. It even cleans up your rough sketches. And as time goes by, it learns about you, your handwriting, and the way you work.” While all this stuff is all rather passé now – it was big news 15 years ago.

Being an inveterate doodler I figured its handwriting and sketch recognition capability would allow me to capture and store random notes and renderings without the need to keep reams of scrap paper. The ad copy was playing my tune, and I duly succumbed to its siren song.

At the appointed hour I turned up at Harrods where a very earnest gentleman took me through the Newton’s paces. It had far more functions than I needed to know about – all I wanted was for it to turn my handwriting into meaningful text and store my drawings.

Using the stylus I carefully wrote; “Hello, my name is Michael” which it promptly translated into “Recourse by refrain in Reprise”

“Try again” said the man “it needs time to recognize your hand”, so I carefully repeated the phrase whereupon the device fed back the same translation.

After numerous attempts it didn’t even get close to what I was trying to say.

Hopes of having the first Newton in my street were fading fast; I thanked the man for his assistance and said “I think I should wait for the second generation.”

I believe succeeding versions of the Newton did get better but so did the competition. The Newton never realised Apple’s expectations and it faded from view after about five years. It tried to do too much. Its simple promise was over-hyped and oversold. It was definitely a very sharp arrow in Apple’s posterior.

It reminded me of a briefing we got as advertising agency for Shacklock stoves back in the 60s. We were told the new range of stoves had a major benefit – the ability to set an oven timer to cook in the owner’s absence. Unfortunately they had overlooked techno-fear. Nobody wanted to know. The dread of burning the house down overrode the advantage of having a roast ready when you got home from church on Sunday morning. It was a machine built by propeller-heads for techno-phobic real people.

How many times does this happen? How many of us have DVD players or other digital clocks, flashing “00.00” since the last power cut, because we can't remember- or haven’t the time to learn - the complicated sequence required to re-program them - or we don’t have a 14 year old in the house who can do it in his sleep? How many times have we tried to use the microwave in someone else’s kitchen, to find that only a Martian with a PhD in astrophysical calculus can figure out how to heat the instant noodles?

Why can’t there be an international convention among electronics manufacturers that insists all controls be limited to; on/off, high/low, record/play, or pause?

I just want a computer that acts as a typewriter and a filing cabinet and connects to the internet - fast. Yet to be compatible with those of my more technically minded peers I have to buy one incorporating approximately seven million functions. I might use some of these functions once out of “gee-whizz” curiosity, then never again remember which pull-down menu and click-through sequence got me into them in the first place.

If anyone wants a tip for a new electronic business, that’s it.

You’ll sell more if the machine does less.

Which means more is less, more or less.

comment by: Desley Simpson
6/6/2008 8:30:43 AM Darlink....all one needs to do is buy the lastest and greatest...that way everyone will THINK you are oh so smart and 'with it' ( and it sure counteracts the OMG you look soooo OLD /Blonde etc..)the fact that you cant use it fully functioning is Ok for at our age fully functioning isnt a goer anyhow. Lesson two...always have access to a teen ager...once you get over the grunts they will fix any electronic prob you may have asleep or awake :) just watch that they dont play with it so much that when they return it to you...all the 'simple mode' functions are turned off ! and its rendered as usless as tits on a bull Off to get into my 'talking car' which really I only need to get from A to B but seems to be able to do pretty much anything except make me a cup of tea...prada phone in handbag and hopefully looking highly intelligent, with it and IT savvy....feel a tui ad coming on
comment by: Rob McKay
6/6/2008 8:52:42 AM Hi Mike - Loved the article! Cheers (Boy Scout) Rob (McKay). PS - I will add you to my weekly articles list. You can opt out any time. Hope you enjoy them - past issues on our website at - check into "library" on the side menu bar.
comment by: Saskia van der Geest
6/6/2008 6:48:49 PM Great article. I was at Apple HQ and got to play with the Newton back in 1995. They ended up teaching us how to write so the Newton could 'understand' us.... wrong way round. Bit of a design blunder, but hey they can afford too, they were still the no 1 launching it!

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