The Vision Thing

SAN FRANCISCO (05/30/2000) - Do you expect me to talk?" asks James Bond as he's strapped on a table, staring down a laser-beam contraption with a steely eye.

"No, Mr. Bond," says the evil Goldfinger, standing over him, "I expect you to die!" So goes one of the most famous movie exchanges of all time from one of the most enduring movie franchises of all time, James Bond.

It seems these days we're all living in a James Bond movie, or at least getting our toys directly from Q: our gadgets are getting smaller, more powerful, and, yes, even more far-fetched. Who would have thought just a few years ago that we'd have handheld organizers that not only track meetings but also play music, take photos, and tell you-down to a couple of feet-exactly where you are on the planet?

But even as our toys become spy-tech, the way we interact with those devices remains low-tech . . . just like 007, who's still more or less a '50s kind of guy, despite the complexities of this modern world.

M may consider 007 "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War," but his gadgets are really cool. You know that Bond's shiny Rolex does more than tell the time-and you know that the Palm can do more than track to-dos.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Bond: Have I ever let you down?

Q: On numerous occasions.

What's making people excited about these handheld devices is the potential to turn them into digital Swiss army knives. That Bond-inspired lust for a combination pen/laser/Cuisinart is what's behind Handspring's attachment slot, the Palm VII's built-in wireless Internet connection, and even the arrival of the color-screened Palm IIIc.

It's not enough that our palmtop computers help us keep track of our schedule, contacts, and to-dos-now they can let us do e-mail, browse the Web, examine spreadsheets, buy stock, track our diets, play games, receive pages, connect to GPS satellite systems, and see into the future. (OK, the last one hasn't been announced-not yet, anyway.)Is the Palm really the best place to do this kind of stuff? I don't know about you, but I don't find the idea of surfing the Web on a screen the size of a playing card any more compelling than the idea of doing it from the screen of my cell phone.

There is, however, the convenience factor: I could make a case where grabbing my e-mail from my Palm while I'm on the train would be useful. True, wireless communication is hardly pervasive, and even when it does work, it's expensive and slow, but, gee, it might work, and that would be cool!

You Only Live Twice

Bond: My name is . . .

Mr. Big: Names is for tombstones, baby.

So, what about Apple Computer Inc.? The company tried its hand in the palmtop arena once before. And the Newton was in many ways a much better product than the one Palm makers are selling today. It had a much more intuitive interface, it could link data between applications automatically, and its handwriting recognition didn't require users to learn special glyphs to enter data.

So, if Newton was all these things, why did it fail? It can be summed up thus:

It's the size, stupid!

Well, maybe it's the size and price, both of which the Newton MessagePad 2000 offered in jumbo proportions. The Palm had the clear advantage in both these areas, yet was extensible enough to graft on functionality. And it won.

Why, then, would Apple consider reentering a market that had it running for cover just a few years ago? Simple: Apple has learned a lot in the last few years. It knows how to capitalize on other companies' successes. And it knows how to build a sexy product.

Imagine a Palm OS device with an Apple logo, an iMac's design panache, and a Newton's usability. Don't scoff: there's nothing so magical about the Newton platform that key elements couldn't be ported to the Palm. I know this because the inventor of the Palm OS took the same NewtonScript class I did.

Believe me, it wouldn't be that hard for Apple to port its handwriting recognition technology to the Palm and build an interface overlay like Windows over DOS. Done right, Apple could conserve compatibility with the vast array of Palm add-ons and increase its usability and desirability tenfold.

I don't know if the Apple Palm rumors are true, but I sure hope they are.

Combine the Palm's Bondian gadget arsenal with Apple's interface acumen, and the results could be World dominating.

Blofeld would approve.

Shaken and not stirred? Send your comments to visionthing@macworld.com.

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