MASON MARK (.COM)

Interview with me at This Ol' Newt

2000-12-03

I was interviewed this past week for the This Ol' Newt web site. It's kind of amazing how active the Newton community still is.

The interview is reproduced below. They ended up getting both my name and Dash Board's name slightly wrong, but we're both used to that happening... ;-)

A Chat with Mark Mason

Developer of Dashboard

How big a company are you?

Extremely large and diverse. Our California campus currently has one full-time engineer (me), an administrative assistant, six pygmy goats, two pigs, two llamas, 27 chickens, three cats, a bunch of birds, and a wild skunk.

We also have a couple other engineers who work with us on contract jobs on an as-needed basis.

Where are you from?

Born in California. I've been living in Tokyo for the past six years, and nowadays I bounce back and forth between our Tokyo and Northern California offices.

Age?

26.

Is programming your profession?

Yes.

What's your favorite drink?

I live up to the programmer stereotype in this regard; I maintain a healthy blood caffeine level by drinking as much good coffee as my doctors will allow. Good, extremely strong coffee.

What can always be found in your fridge? Or the Fridge at your office?

Uhm...mold? And beer.

List your Newton Products:

Our flagship product for Newton is Dash Board. It is a replacement button bar for Newton OS 2.1 StrongArm machines, which means it will only run on a MP2000 or MP2100. It turns the button bar into something closer to what I think it should have been from the start. It features a hierarchical menu system, something like the Apple Menu on Mac OS or the Start menu on Windows, which you can customize to your liking. It also features the Letter Launcher, which is a little box on the button bar which you can write a single letter to launch a program or execute a script or built-in shortcut. It has a row of mini-buttons along the bottom, which also function as visual indicators of the time, default store, volume, etc.

It's actually a really hard product to describe, interested readers should check out the web page at: http://www.fivespeed.com/dashboard

It has been a really gratifying product to write, both as a user myself and then also because it has received a lot of accolades from regular users as well as magazines and online sites.

It has also been a disappointing product in that it never lived up to my dreams for it, because the Newton was actually discontinued prior to Dash Board's release. We still sell and support it, but as you might expect, the sales volume is probably not enough to fund the development of the 2.0 version I had plans for. Of course, I might always hit it big at the blackjack tables and then just do it for fun.

Our other notable Newton product is Wake Up Call, a nifty little alarm clock. It has some features designed for especially heavy sleepers like myself, including a stop-confirmation option that presents a dialog after you stop the alarm. If you don't confirm, it snoozes instead. It's main notable feature, though, is the ability to use the MP2x00's built in microphone to record your own alarm sounds. Lots of people have written in to tell us how they love waking up to the sound of their child's voice, or whatever.

Finally, we have a hack debugging tool called Minspector, which is like a miniature version of something like the Mac OS-based Newton Toolkit Inspector. Basically it provides some of the printing and logging functions that you can get from tethering your Newton up to a Mac development machine, but without the Mac. Just for fun, the Minspector window mimics the UI of Mac OS 8. It is not at all a polished product though, and I actually don't know of a single person other than myself who has ever used it. :-)

Where are they available?

All of our Newton apps are available from our web site: http://www.fivespeed.com

We sell software by electronic download only, and the well known payment processor, Kagi, handles all of the transactions.

What Newtons have you owned?

I started with the MP120, and I thought "Wow! This will be pretty cool...in a year or two."

I upgraded the OS, then upgraded to an MP130. I actually used these machines, but never loved them. But when the MP2000 came out, the potential of the Newton finally became real. It had that big, hi-res grayscale screen, fast processor, dual card slots, and of course, the Newton 2.1 OS. The only thing it didn't have was quite enough memory. Then the MP2100 came out.

That machine was the validation of the Newton. Thousands of people still use them, and you cannot buy a better handheld computer even now! That really is amazing. It never really surprised me that the Newton was so ridiculed, before...I mean, you needed some imagination to see how cool they were. But the MP2100 was indisputably an incredible little computer. I had a data card and a cellular modem in mine, and I used it all the time: downloading a map, taking meeting notes, reading the news on the train (or in meetings sometimes), sending a fax from the airport...it was a life changer.

But, the story didn't have a happy ending, as we all know. I still use it, though.

What Newton do you use now?

MP2100.

If you use another PDA now, which one and why is that your choice over the others?

Well I also use a Palm unit (actually a series of five Palm units, since they break so easily), which is ridiculous. I probably shouldn't talk too much trash about it, since Five Speed has Palm OS apps maybe coming down the pipe. But using that thing is like driving a three door Hyundai with an oil leak. The only reason I use it is because we are developing for it, though the base platform is so lame that there's not much joy in developing for it. The only fun is in 'fixing' the egregious flaws in the basic Palm UI by implementing our own.

The singular good thing about the Palm is the synchronization aspect. I sync mine with Microsoft Entourage on the Mac, and Palm Desktop on Windows. Mainly, I use the Palm unit to debug our Palm products and to look up the occasional phone number.

Well, I guess the cheap price is another plus, but you seem to get what you pay for.

Which is /was your favorite Newton?

MP2100, in my view, was the first and last truly good Newton.

Favorite pkg you didn't develop?

Hmm. Viewframe, the developer tool, is an incredible asset to the Newton programmer, and is probably the one package I would least like to do without. Poking through the ROM with that thing is a lot of fun.

If/When Apple comes out with a new PDA will you develop for that platform? ( keep it clean! :> this is a hot issue it seems for most developers)

*@&#%%+@**&!*~!!

Look, I would never rule anything out. But that company, frankly, is insane. Not just the fact that they canned the Newton--it's pretty hard to second guess decisions when a company is bleeding billions of dollars--but the way that they did it, really rankled. Here I am speaking perhaps more as a user than as a developer. But the tone of their announcements, and then the shoddy level of support for the units already in customers' hands...it pissed a lot of people off.

But Apple has been a kind of factory for these kinds of debacles. Remember the Mac OS clone situtation, and then the kludgey decision to terminate cloning? Remember the Copland saga? You watch these things unfold with a kind of painful embarassment, you want to avert your eyes and pretend you don't see it.

So I would take any product announcement from Apple with a grain of salt, or maybe a couple of tablespoons. But Apple churns out some winners, too. And our general queasiness in developing for Apple platforms notwithstanding, we do have some Mac OS X stuff in active development in the lab (and it is even cool!). So..if they started shipping Newton OS units again, I can definitely say we would be all over that one. Anything else, and we would definitely be doing more looking than leaping, at least initially.

Do you develop for other "evil" platforms?

Well, I personally think Palm OS is pretty evil. Even though it is funny, it seems like almost the entire Newton OS team now works on Palm OS...in the Palm OS development lists, and from Palm Developer Support, you see familiar names from the old Newton days. Lot of old Newton developers in that world, too. So maybe there is hope for it. But I can't help but feel like I have gone from working on a Formula-1 pit crew to working in a lawnmower repair shop, when I do Palm stuff. It just isn't that fun, and the platform is so lame that it's pretty hard to make good software for it. (Maybe that's why our couple Palm apps haven't seen daylight yet.)

Other not-so-evil platforms I have done some work on are Japanese cellphone Internet platforms. These projects were basically web apps, but developed for Japanese systems like i-mode, NTT's cellphone-web platform. My Japanese cell phone humiliates my American 2000-model Motorola StarTac/TimePort unit in many ways, but one of those ways is the integration of a full color screen and web browser. The screens are small, and the protocols are nonstandard, but you can do some cool stuff on these things. It can also do 64Kbps wireless data over a PC Card or Compact Flash card modem, which is pretty cool.

I am pretty happy not doing anything for Microsoft platforms. With WindowsCE (or whatever the current name is) at least you COULD do some things that just plain can't happen on Palm, though.

What products for the "evil" platforms?

Well, we started doing Wake Up Call for Palm as a kind of starter project--it's to the point that I wake up with it sometimes, but not even close to beta, and has stagnated for a good six months. There's no way you could do Dash Board on a Palm OS unit. We played with a couple other apps but nothing beyond proof-of-concept.

One of the fun things we did is replace some of the lame Palm OS UI widgets with sensibly designed ones. But so what...that's not how you write apps for a platform, by rewriting the platform. At a Five Speed board meeting a few months ago, I said maybe we get another developer to focus on Palm, or maybe we don't do Palm. But you never know. I have a couple pre-beta testers who really want to see me whip WUC into decent shape on Palm OS, so it could happen.

What features on the "evil" platforms do you wish they could copy from Newton?

Common sense. Respect for the user. A modicum of intelligence.

Any Features that would be nice additions to the Newton OS?

Sync, sync, sync. Five Speed considered (but decided against) developing a Newton package that would sync like a Palm with Palm Desktop. Even if you had to dumb down the Newton apps (text only notes, etc) it would be a trade off a lot of people would want. (Actually, I want it!)

Remember how backwards we went in terms of desktop sync, when the Newton OS 2.0 upgrade came out. With 1.x we had shoddy but more or less functional desktop sync--at least you could edit your damn address book on the desktop! That never materialized for Newton OS 2, and was probably one of the fatal mistakes Apple made.

Do you have a favorite pet?

We have three semi-wild cats at our California location. I love those guys. They come in to hang out in my office sometimes, and maybe play cat-vs-programmer fighting, but mainly they are interested in roaming the fields at night and hunting. One of them actually killed a hawk that was going after the pigeons in our aviary. (!)

Favorite sports teams?

You picked a good year to ask; the Oakland Raiders are particularly fun this year.

If there is a spot on your shirt is is most likely_____?_____

I probably haven't noticed it, so I wouldn't really know...

Anything on your Netwon that may have suprised anyone?

Well, the most surprising thing on my (and unfortunately not only my) Newton arose during the Dash Board beta test. It's not really suitable for a family publication, though, so print it at your discretion. ;-)

During the internal stages of development, there are times when you want to stay focused on the functionality you are coding, and not the pretty little details. Also, you sometimes are drinking single malt Scotch (in our office, anyway). So you sometimes have dialogs in the program that say things like, "Finish me later!" or "Don't forget to handle x, y, z later!" and so on.

Well, a particularly egregious one made it into the beta test stage. We had a private list of about 100 beta testers, and if you dragged an icon onto the button bar in a certain way, you would get a dialog that was supposed to say "Would you like to replace blah blah with yadda yadda?"

But instead, it said "OK to fuck your wife?"

I didn't know about this until a couple of us were going over bug reports and we got to the sixth bug on some guy's list and he was like "As for your extramarital relations with my wife, I am a actually not married." I had no idea what the hell he was talking about until I followed the steps in his bug report. Then I saw the dialog, and just about had a coronary. If I hadn't been the boss, I probably would have gotten fired for that one. We released a hurried new beta release the next day.

Anything on your Newton used mainly at meetings of family gatherings?( to save you from boredom<grin>

Well, I used to have a set of AppleScripts on my Mac that would automatically convert the weekly email version of Slate magazine into Newton book format. Then I would always have reading material in any boring situation.

Any other interests hobbies or opinions to share ?

If I'm not in the office, I am probably sleeping or zooming around California in my matte black spraypainted Honda Civic Si. Or making coffee.

And finally, I would like to weigh in with a length discourse on abortion, the presidential election, Ford vs. Chevy, and Hillary Clinton's--whoops, our PR officer informs me that this interview is over.

Thanks a lot.

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