Does anyone beyond tech historians and the strange grey haired company nerd who sits in that office near the fire exit remember Apple's ill-fated Newton? With cyberspace overflowing with tablet talk, you'd think the Newton, arguably the true granddaddy of all present day consumer tablets, would be mentioned far more often than it has been. It seems that when Steve Jobs axed the device it was summarily deleted from the collective consumer conscience as well.
Such a shame because the Newton was a device that was light years ahead of its time. In fact, I'd wager several real American dollars that if the Newton were revamped to include the latest processors, graphics, memory, and screen technologies, but kept much of its original "let's get busy" attitude and usefulness, it would be a bigger hit than the iPhone and iPad combined. Yeah, I know that's a tall statement, but hear me out.
What the Newton did that made it such a great device was that it focused on performing a small set of tasks very well. One such task was note taking.
When the Newton MessagePad 100 was first offered in 1993 (1993!!!) the ideology behind it was to bring computing to people instead of the other way around, which was the way we dealt with our digital world back then. To make using computers more accessible Apple tried to get these devices to act as translators, taking our input and converting it into something meaningful in our digital world.
The first Newtons had the ability to turn our horrible handwriting into neat, clean text, and it did so with amazing accuracy and without being connected to the Internet. That's a feat even Apple's wonderful iPad can't match.
Handwriting recognition is still a feature I believe should be a mainstay in our mobile environment and it puzzles me to no end why it is absent or treated like a bend penny. It could be the lingering affect of Jobs' not so hidden dislike for all things Newton, but I refuse to believe it has anything to do with hardware. If the Newton, running a 20MHz ARM 610 processor and about 5mb (5!!!) of total memory could provide decent write-to-text conversion, an iPad should be able to do the same thing as a side process and still be pretty darn quick about it too.
Ah well, maybe that's a feature future iPads will offer. In the meantime the need to make computing more accessible remains even as the Newton's progeny take over the computing world. Taking notes still requires us to type in our text, or does it?
In this week's Free on iTunes I'm going to look at two apps which kinda do on iDevices what the Newton did; convert writing to text. The third app doesn't do any converting, but is great for simple note taking. So lets get to it.
MyScript Memo [13.8MB, all iOS devices, iOS 5.0 or later, Developer: Vision Objects]
Scribble and include pix in MyScript Memo
I've read several articles that have proclaimed the death of cursive writing. Maybe that's true, but if you do write cursively then MyScript Memo will convert your scribblings into typed text almost as fast as you can say, "jumping Jack Flash."
MyScript Memo is pretty basic as note taking apps go. You get a screen the looks like a note pad, and you write on it using your finger or a stylus. There are several paper styles to pick from and the app sports a palm guard area so you can rest your hand on the screen while you write. You can also add a photo to your notes then export the whole shebang to a short list of the usual social app suspects.
But only the text gets converted
MyScript Memo does not convert your writing into text on the fly as the Newton did, instead it waits for you to finish and either converts text in an area you define or all the writing on the page when you export. It does a good job of it, too. What it doesn't do is convert your writing and photo document into a text and photo document. When you export you just get the converted text or the handwriting and photo doc. Too bad. That would have cinched it for me. As it is MyScript Memo is useful for taking quick notes that need conversion. It's free so it's well worth the price.
MyScript Calculator [18.3MB, all iOS devices, iOS 5.0 or later, Developer: Vision Objects]
Imagine writing a math problem out on paper and the answer magically appears. That's what MyScript Calculator does.
MyScript Calculator caught converting written numbers into cool characters
Write "234+14+1004" and your sorry excuse for numbers gets transformed into big, bold, and entirely legible characters. Then the real magic happens. "=1252" appears to the left of the equation.
Then the answer magically appears
Most basic arithmetic functions are supported including Log, square roots, and exponential functions, and brackets, fractional divides and other symbols are understood as well. You can erase any number in the equation and replace it.
Unfortunately any higher math function involving unknowns won't work, the app converts your "a" or "b" to "0" or "6". There's also a limit to how many characters an equation will take.
But there's a limit to the magic
There's all sorts of room for improvements and new features, but as a freebie basic calculator, MyScript Calculator is a fun time with number.
Documents [6.9MB, all iOS devices, iOS 5.0 or later, Developer: SavySoda LTD]
Documents word processor is basic but functional
This app does not support any write to text function, you just type in what you need to, but it really does a good job of it as long as you don't need anything fancy.
Documents is actually two apps; it's a basic word processor and a basic spreadsheet. In fact, I'm finishing this article on Documents word processor. I started the article in another word processor, saved it to DropBox, then opened it in Documents, which demonstrates how flexible the app is.
As is its spreadsheet
Again, there nothing fancy in the free version. No word count or margins, just straight up text. The spreadsheet is equally spartan and equally useful. You get a list of basic functions, cut and paste cells, and that's pretty much it. But if that's all you need why complicate things?
There are ads, but they don't appear where you work, just where you manage the documents.
If I had a complaint about Documents it would be about its cumbersome cloud integration. Saving to or loading from DropBox or GoogleDocs is a two-step process. To save, you first save it on your iDevice, then upload it to DropBox, for instance. The reverse to edit a cloud based file. Why not load directly to the cloud when it's available?
But hey, it's free and it works.
That's a wrap for this week.
If you have young ones that you need to put to sleep regularly you'll be glad for the Free App of the Week this week, Nighty Night. A wonderful animated book just for sleepy heads.