Friday, June 24, 2005

The Switch Newton Fans Have Waited For...

At first, I thought the rumor of an Apple/Intel partnership was going to be over an ARM processor for a new handheld device or possibly for WiMax technology.

The ARM processor made it's way into the first Apple Newton handhelds and continued with processor speed increases throughout the life of the Newton. Now ARM processors (and derivitaves) are found in most all Palm and PocketPC handheld PDA devices.

Intel now calls their version of the ARM - the XScale. (It used to be called the StrongARM)

Apple had significant investment in ARM shares, and sold them off little by little upon Steve Jobs return and then killing of the Newton.

I thought I would provide that brief history before I get into the background of this BLOG entry.

A company called Transmeta, who has recently seen hard times, produces a chip called, "The Crusoe". It's a low power, low heat processor that emulates the x86 (Intel processor). It features a unique code morphing ability. Similar (loosely) in process to what Apple will be doing in software with it's Rosetta technology to recompile PowerPC applications to run on Intel processors.

Theoretically, the x86 morphing layer in the Transmeta Crusoe could have been replaced with a PPC emulation layer.

So what?

Interestingly, in 2001, a few engineers left the Apple PowerBook team to develop an ultra portable handheld that would run a full blown operating system, not a paired down, custom PDA operating system. This company was called OQO. It was rumored that OQO went to Apple to see if they would buy into and invest in the handheld. It was rumored that Steve Jobs refused, and OQO went on to release a Windows XP OQO handheld. (Many thought the product was vaporware, until it finally came to market in December of 2004)

It features a 1Ghz Transmeta Crusoe processor, wifi, bluetooth, USB, and even firewire.

Since the WWDC conference, I've been trying to figure out the various implications and background that Intel processors have had at Apple since the year 2000. In his keynote, Steve Jobs announced that all versions of OSX had also secretly been developed on Intel processors. Were the OQO engineers aware of this? Was an OQO running Mac OS X?

I do find it a little odd the OQO has firewire

Steve Jobs has also said that Apple has had a number of prototypes floating around for handhelds, but hasn't seen the need or the market for them. He went on to say that he believes smart phones will take the place of PDAs eventually.

Now that we know there was a possibility of a full OSX version running on, in my opinion, the coolest handheld made to date, is there more hope one will be released now?



Anonymous said...

Take a close look at the Video on the OQO Site.

About 3/4 of the way thru the video they mention "access large inventory databases and files"

There is an intereseting screen shot of a Purchase Order, with a distinctly "MacOS X" look to it.

Anonymous said...

As a matter of fact take a close look at all their screen shots, there are images from Safari, and other apps.

Anonymous said...

The size and styling is about right and it sounds like it has the horse power to be the next Newton, complete with handwriting recognition, but it is more than the hardware.

Newton was also about the OS and applications and some of OS X's applications will not scale well to a small screen in their current form. Try shrinking down Mail, iCal, and address book to 800x480 and see how wasteful their interface really is. They were designed for expansive displays.

The PDA market as it stands is in for some rough times against the new phones, but I do think there is a place for mini tablets. Devices that are less portable than a Palm (like newton was) but large enough to run core applications and large enough to take and read notes on. It is the data pad you always see passed around on StarTrek TNG. Read the paper or a book, get your email, check the web and review your digital library. Somebody is going to make it and it will be huge.

FYT said...

Good find Beau ... thanks for the link

Anonymous said...

ARM processors were not "originally" develop by DEC as mistakenly stated in this article.

They were developed by a british company called Acorn computer...

Anonymous said...

It's totally amazing how much of computing, the net et al was invented by those damn Brits, how do they do it?

Anonymous said...

hmmm... like many movies and commercials, lots of demos, mockups, and presentations are done by graphic designers with macs and use simple screengrabs from macs for presentation purposes... just a possiblity.

FYT said...

Thanks for the correction - what was meant was that DEC was behind it to get it into computing devices - in connection with Texas Instruments and later through Intel with StrongARM - Acorn was the inventor, not really the developer and distributor. I believe they were bought out by some company early on weren't they?

Johnathan said...

FWIW, I agree with Anonymous that it may just be that the marketing video (which is actually quite nice for a Windows computer) was produced by Mac users. The Safari window and another Aqua window appear to be screen shots from a Mac being displayed on top of the Windows XP desktop (which remains visible behind both of the aforementioned). I guess it *could* be possible, even if unlikely, that the Safari screen shot was made by skinning a browser running on Windows such as Firefox or Mozilla with a Safari-like skin.

In any case, would love to see one of these OQO computers running OS X, whether the PPC or Intel version. Wouldn't most of the apps one would run on a handheld be Cocoa anyway, with the exception of iTunes? Seems to me that it might not make a difference what processor programs were natively written/compiled for, when the Transmeta chip inside can translate anyway. Might be nice to write more "direct" code for media functions like audio & video however; I think it would probably run better if multimedia apps didn't need to be emulated on the fly.

Middle-agedman said...

Regarding scaling of OS X applications to a smaller format, keep in mind that there is a difference between "paring down" an application to work on another device and "optimizing" an application for same. I currently own and use a PocketPC fairly extensively and it works quite well for mail and Word and Excel. Due to memory and storage limitations on the PPC it is both "pared down" and "optimized." What JW is speaking of would not require the paring down. It has already been shown that a handheld device can have a lot of storage as per the iPod. Now that we have access to gigabyte and higher flash cards of one type or another, application memory is no longer a problem.

I foresee Apple putting an almost identical version of OSX on a handheld and "optimizing" the applications therein to work with the smaller screen. It is even possible that there may be extensions built into the OS that would optimize such applications on the fly so virtually anything that was an OSX app would work on the handheld.

Regarding Steve Job's assertion that the cell phone market will supercede the PDA market--I don't think so. There is a vast benefit in being able to have and carry a smaller cell phone and a separate PDA, particularly if that PDA could do what an iPod Photo can do. With the capabilities of the iPod Photo already, I think Steve foresees the possibility himself and is being cagey at this point. Apple likes "popping" new and innovative devices on the market so that the reaction is "Where did that come from???" This is what happened with both groundbreaking versions of the iMac, first with the CRT iMac and then with the "daisy" iMac. Apple is not a company that announces their intentions and slowly builds up to it.

For those that have truly used (not simply owned, but USED) both a PDA and a cell phone, you simply cannot TOTALLY replace one with the other. For someone that puts their appointments and contacts in their cell phone and that is all that they would use a pda for, a combo device is sufficient. For what a true user of a pda uses it for, a cell phone will always be a poor substitute.

Part of the reason that the PDA market is in a slump is that it is so unexciting. If you could take an iPod Photo in its current form and stretch the screen to cover the entire front of the unit, embedding the click wheel into a touch-screen interface, and give it PDA capabilities the PDA market would explode.

Anonymous said...

We have gained a lot of experience in the QuantumSTEP project over the last two years about "shrinking MacOS X into a PDA".

The basic statement is: yes, it can be done and is not sooo complex as one might think!

But (as usual, there is a but), several aspects have to be taken into account, as already mentioned by previous posters here:

1. a PDA usually has a much smaller screen, so we have to work on modifying all the applications to be operated on a "palmtop" rather than a "desktop". So, we get rid of the Desktop metaphor with multiple overlapping windows that you can move and resize and make all windows full-screen, being virtually stacked on top of each other.

The other thing to get rid of is drag&drop. This has to be replaced by select/mark and copy&paste.
And finally, the layout has to be adapted and sometimes the information content which easily fits into a single window with several views, sliders etc. needs to be distributed among several windows.

But all this can be solved as you can really preview on our testdrive applications (which run on MacOS X):

2. MacOS X still carries along a lot of old stuff: Classic and Carbon. We simply did not implement this on QuantumSTEP. So, QuantumSTEP is a Cocoa/Objective-C only (well, mostly - some parts are in plain C).

3. Memory capacity and speed. This is a major concern. Compare a typical PDA with 64MByte RAM, 64MB Flash, external memory. And compare with the minimum requirements of a full MacOS X.

MacOS X heavily uses caches to speed up many functions (my 768MByte on a G4 with 10.4 are reapidly full and swapping starts).

4. Floating point. Unfortunately, all the ARM processors lack a floating point unit. So, all graphic coordinate calculations of Cocoa have to be emulated by the FPU software. This imposes a certain speed degradation - but by clever caching mechanisms (which need memory of course), we can get at a reasonable speed on the Sharp Zaurus models.

5. Handwriting
Integrating Handwriting into a PDA seems to be a must today. But again, it is different from handwriting on a Desktop system. Inkwell uses a separate tablet - as far as I know there is no touchscreen accessory for a Mac available. So, nobody knows how well Inwell (pun!) works on a real touchscreen.

So, I think the new Apple-Intel partnership does not have a direct impact on the New Newton story. We know that Apple would have to invest some efforts to come near to what we already have. It is not simply recompiling MacOS X for a third (Xscale) processor architecture. It is more.

-- hns
Project Lead QuantumSTEP