Thursday, December 20, 2007

dreaming/waking: of digital assistants (updated)

Flurries of recent speculation and more recent Apple job postings are giving me flashbacks.

In 1994 we started getting word of hand-held devices that could truly live up to the "digital assistant" promise. Tools that wouldn't just keep your calendar, but would enable you to engage the world around you in new ways. Remember General Magic? When Sony, AT&T and Motorola announced their devices at the same time that Apple was getting ready to launch the Newton 120, we seemed to be on the edge of something special.

But as is often the case, bad execution and bad timing killed great vision.

Without distributed Telescript applications, Magic Cap devices became isolated islands with no access to the sorts of services and capabilities that were the foundation of the General Magic value proposition. The fact that they ran on a proprietary network at a time when the free internet (via Mosaic) was first taking off was the nail in the coffin.

And without the processing power to make its handwriting recognition really shine, the Newton suffered in the eyes of the public, especially when compared to the brain-dead simplicity of the Palm Pilot. By the time the Newton 2100 was released, the world had moved on - myself included. I bought a Palm Pilot after using it at a Gartner Group show where its size, ease-of-use and speed forced me to see my Newton for what it was - a dream.

In the end the Palm Pilot was a soulless thing without vision. It wasn't a digital assistant. It was a Filofax replacement. And the day my Pilot crapped out while I was looking for a phone number was the day I abandoned it for paper. I had come full circle, from dreaming to waking to dreaming again.

I'm still stuck on paper as I dream of a day when I can expect more from a hand-held device than playing music or making calls or fiddling with my calendar.

Who knows, maybe that day is coming. And when it does it'll find a Web 2.0 world of distributed applications waiting for it and more than enough processing power to drive it.

(artwork by audiopollution, courtesy of AppleInsider)

Update 1 - The clever lads at AppleInsider have reported on an (unconfirmed) Apple decision to make use of Intel's "Menlow" Mobile Internet Device (MID) platform, specifically "the upcoming 45-nanometer (nm) Silverthorne chip, agreeing to use it in not one but multiple products currently situated on its 2008 calendar year product roadmap." If true, this is more than enough processing power to drive a Newton successor product with an acceptable power profile.

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