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Hang Ups

Visitors to Apple Expo 95 last week were shocked to discover that a couple of PCs had found their way into the Grand Hall at Olympia. Not, of course, those clumsy Dos contraptions - Apple aficionados, a partisan crowd, would have ritually disembowelled them on sight.

These were real PCs - the sort whose lot is not an 'appy one. They had proceeded in a southerly direction from Derby to position themselves, and - for some strange reason, their motorbike - on the stand dedicated to the Apple MessagePad (alias, the Newton). Much hyped, and much-maligned in the early 90s, the Newton was supposed to have revolutionised personal computing.

Designed to fit into a suit pocket (preferably Armani), it was hailed as the ultimate digital organiser. What made it so special was that it did away with the need for an olde worlde keyboard. You manipulated the various utilities by touching the screen with a stylus. And if you wanted to input data, you simply wrote on the screen in your normal handwriting, and watched your words miraculously transform into print.

Unfortunately, as many users found, the words that miraculously appeared often bore no resemblance to the words that they'd written. Indeed, for a moment I thought the police might have been at the show to arrest whoever was responsible for designing a product that could be so infuriatingly erratic. Actually, they'd come to say how useful the Newton was proving to be in their day-to-day duties.

Of course, they wouldn't dare use it as a substitute for the traditional black notebook, and licked pencil. ("May I warn you, Sir, that anything you say may be taken down and converted into gobbledygook.") In fact, they rarely make use of the handwriting facility. Instead, their machines are pre-loaded with a menu-driven series of options which cover almost every detail they'd need to log at the scene of a crime. If they ever do need to input a word, they summon the on-screen keyboard. All the data is then instantly downloaded via a mobile (attached to their belts) to the regional mainframe. It means they can now complete a report in minutes rather than the hour or so it would take slaving over a hot terminal back at the nick.

If the police are willing to give the Newton the thumbs up, it must be time for the rest of us to take it seriously. Especially, since Apple Expo 95 saw the launch of a revamped model in which the faults that bedevilled the original version have been remedied. It's faster, more versatile, and, apparently, far better at recognising handwriting.

Teachers will appreciate the enormous potential in the classroom of a machine that's as "natural" to use as pen and paper and which offers children many of the advantages of IT without the hullabaloo that's usually associated with computers. But then teachers would have found the whole range of products on display at the show equally impressive.

And fortunately there is a way of acquiring Apple hardware for no cost at all. If teachers can persuade enough parents to buy home computers, the school is given a free machine. For instance, if parents shell out for 12 Performa 5200s, the school receives a Performa 6200. Apple will - of course - provide teachers with the glossy sales bumf and advice on how to organise a sales evening in the school.

I know that many teachers have serious reservations about exploiting parents in this way. Some would regard robbing a bank as less reprehensible. Those who choose to do so, and subsequently get nicked in the Derbyshire area, should ask the arresting officer to show them his Newton. They'll be impressed.

Apple MessagePad 120 with new Newton 2.0 OS: Pounds 424. Further details about the parents' scheme, and an interest- free deal for teachers: Apples for Education, Freepost, London SW15 2YY

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