`My Norse 15 Critics'

There is a certain ambivalence that goes with being the first computer ever mocked in Doonesbury. On the one hand, a nationally syndicated cartoon strip implies mass-market appeal. On the other, well, a nationally syndicated pan is still a pan.

But there it was, in newspapers everywhere: A full week of protagonist Mike Doonesbury wrestling with the vagaries of handwriting recognition, the celebrated feature of Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton MessagePad.

UNIMPRESSED. It has come to this: that the most trumpeted technological achievement of the year is reduced to nonsensical one-liners. Newton, the first handheld personal digital assistant (PDA)--incorporating electronic telephone book, calendar, notepad, and portable faxer--was unveiled on Aug. 2. Computer types praise its handwriting recognition as the best to date. But plenty of regular people are unimpressed. One newspaper critic concluded PDA should be renamed "productivity draining apparatus." Another mused that Newton will wind up dropping on Apple's head.

Apple says: Mellow out. Some of the Newton criticism, company executives argue, is knee-jerky and unjustified. They say it takes time, perhaps up to two weeks, for people to "train" their Newtons to recognize individual handwriting. "It's like any first new product," said Apple Chairman John Sculley, defending Newton at a conference in Boston on Sept. 14. "There are bound to be things we'd like to see it do better."

Besides, says Gaston Bastiaens, head of the Apple division overseeing Newton, "the proof in the pudding is how many we've sold." In fact, Apple says it has sold more than 10,000 Newtons so far, at prices ranging from $695 to $950. Retailers support that claim. New England-based Computer Town says its five stores sold 2,000 MessagePads in one month. "We've never had any product sell like this," says President Thomas E. Jacobs. Tandy Corp.'s Computer City SuperCenters sold out their supply within days and have more on order. Says Computer City President Alan Bush: "The whole PDA category is going to be a grand-slam home run."

Maybe yes, maybe no. The computer industry is littered with examples of pioneering products that sold like hotcakes for a few months, then fell flat. Take Apple's original 1984 Macintosh computer. Apple boasted of shipping 70,000 units in the machine's first 100 days. Then sales fizzled. Apple posted a loss--and layoffs--before an improved Mac in 1986 pumped up sales.

Some fret Newton could turn into a Mac replay. Says Aaron Goldberg, chief executive officer of market researcher InfoCorp: "Doonesbury crystallized the current state of PDAs for the entire reading world. They are selling very well, yet their utility is something you might call into doubt."

Others don't doubt it at all. Market researcher Dataquest Inc. estimates 70,000 PDAs will be snapped up this year, mushrooming to 350,000 in 1994 and 850,000 in 1995. That's why other computer makers, from AST Research Inc. to Compaq Computer Corp., are set to leap into the PDA fray.

DYSLEXIC? True, PDA makers worry the Newton-bashing will sour some potential customers. But many computer executives believe the real problem is with Newton's handwriting recognition. For that reason, Newton's woes may actually spur sales of rival machines that de-emphasize handwriting recognition in favor of simpler pen-based technologies. Says Howard Elias, vice-president of worldwide marketing for AST, which will ship a PDA in November: "Handwriting is just not ready for prime time."

Lori Johnson couldn't agree more. Testing a Newton on display in a Santa Clara (Calif.) store, she writes: "My name is Lori." Newton's interpretation: "My mom is Low." "I'm telling you, I'm definitely not paying $695," she says.

But husband Curtis Johnson might. He is impressed with the technology and thinks Newton would be great for organizing all the notes he takes as a software engineer for Sybase Inc. He takes a turn at Newton, writing: "My name is Curtis." He remains enthusiastic, despite the response: "My norse 15 Critics."

Therein, perhaps, lies a message about the fate of Newton and other PDAs. But it's too early to tell for certain. And it's definitely too garbled.

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