Help wanted: scribble thing

Matthew JC. Powell
2 April, 2008
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In May of 1997 Apple held its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose California. This was the first WWDC after Apple had acquired NeXT and with it, mercurial CEO Steve Jobs. By this time it had become clear that the motivation for the takeover had been nothing less than the replacement of Mac OS with a new system based on the OpenStep operating system from NeXT. Developers wanted to know what that meant for them, and how it might (or might not) save Apple — and thereby their own businesses — from oblivion.

The first couple of days of the conference were dominated by sessions on what was then called Rhapsody, with its "Yellow Box" and "Blue Box" and "Pink Box" environments for running different sets of APIs and Java and some other stuff that the proper developers all understood and the wee poor journalists just wrote down and hoped they didn’t misspell. On the second-last day of the conference, however, was the most tantalising session of all: "A Fireside Chat With Steve Jobs".

At the time, Jobs had no formal position at Apple. He carried a weasel-word title like "Advisor to the CEO" or somesuch, but didn’t even have a dedicated parking space. Nonetheless, this was the prodigal founder come back to save Apple, and there was more than a little bit of excitement about what he might have to say.

In the "Chat" (which, incidentally, was no illuminated by any fire whatsoever) Jobs took questions from the audience and tried to outline his vision for how NeXT’s technology might help save the Mac. One question seemed to throw him, however: "what is going to happen to the Newton?"

Newton. The pet project of John Sculley, the sugar-water selling "bozo" to whom Jobs had handed his company a decade before. The over-priced, under-powered, ahead-of-its-time PDA that at once defined palmtop computers and made them a laughing stock. Jobs wanted to talk about Mac stuff, but of course this was an Apple conference, not just a Mac conference, and there were Newton developers in attendance too. Then-CEO Gil Amelio had seemed even more at sea about what to do with Newton than he was about the Mac. He’d come up with the idea of spinning the Newton division off into its own independent company, but that plan was riven with doubt about its viability without Apple’s support. Newton developers had reason to wonder what would happen next.

Jobs praised the form factor of the Newton MessagePad, but complained it was badly conceived. Then, gesturing at his palm and miming throwing something over his shoulder, he said "I don’t want a scribble thing".

Air left the room. As men tioned above, Jobs had no formal position, no power, at least on paper. But everyone knew that in any clash of personalities between Jobs and then-CEO Gil Amelio, the latter would be an unarmed man. Newton developers began, at that moment, to start planning their futures on some other operating system. An Apple minder came out after Jobs’s speech and blathered something about how the company loves having Jobs’s feedback, but of course he didn’t speak for the executive, and blah and blah and blah. A month later Newton — the MessagePad and the eMate and any future devices its developers may have dreamed of — was gone.

Fast forward to last week, and a job posting on Apple’s web site. Apple seeks a "Handwriting Recognition Engineer". And not just any handwriting recognition engineer, this one must have a PhD in pattern recognition, and a proven track record of innovation and excellence in shipping products. This is no entry-level job.

Of course, it’s not a return of the Newton. That ain’t gonna happen. But the ad does hint, intriguingly, that "the recognition technology you create may extend beyond Mac OS X to other applications and the iPhone". Up until now, it’s seemed that Jobs saw the iPhone as a multi-touch device, driven by gestures and finger movements. No stylus would ever touch that glossy smooth surface. The possibilities for handwriting recognition on an iPhone-like device are intriguing, and more than a few people have expressed the wish that there were some way to input info on the iPhone and iPod touch other than the virtual keyboard.

Another bit of the ad opens a different possibility though. The ad also calls for "experience in developing recognition systems for non-Roman languages". So perhaps this isn’t an acknowledgement from Jobs that the virtual keyboard is maybe less than ideal, so much as it’s a recognition that the virtual keyboard isn’t going to work terribly well for people trying to communicate in Japanese or Chinese. That may be why such a senior person is called for — this handwriting recognition system needs to happen soon enough to make the iPhone a success when it launches in Asia. There’s no time for a learning curve.

Right now there isn’t really a good solution for handheld computing in Asian languages, and every attempt at keyboard-based input of multi-byte characters on such small devices involves compromise to one extent or another. A gesture-based system could make the iPhone uniquely capable of success in these markets.

So a "scribble thing" isn’t so useless after all, eh Steve?

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