Posts categorized “newton history”.

The tablet before the tablet

January 25th, 2010

Newton tablet mockup

Now that an Apple event later this month is official, the tablet rumor mill will churn with industrial-level speed.

The consensus, from what I’ve read: 7-10″ touchscreen, digestable media (print, video, and otherwise), apps ala carte, and some sort of web connection. All that’s almost certain. And, on the surface, the rumored Apple tablet sounds like an updated Newton MessagePad.

Any similarities are superficial, of course. At 12 years old, even the youngest Newton shows it age. But let’s say we were to take a MessagePad 2000 or 2100, or even an eMate 300, and bring it as close to a modern-day Apple tablet as possible. What would we need?

To start, we’d need applications – and lots of them. We’d also need some connectivity with our Macs or PCs. Some sort of media viewability would have to be there, as would an Internet connection. For people to use it, they need to easily understand how it works. Lastly, we’d need support from Apple.

Fat chance on that last one, and we’d never get a color screen, but the rest of that checklist is doable with the Newton. It wouldn’t be as fast, colorful, or rich as a yet-to-exist Apple tablet. But as a proto-tablet, the Newton is it.

As Wired points out in a recent article about network computer (from Oracle’s Larry Ellison):

We tend to think of technology as a steady march, a progression of increasingly better mousetraps that succeed based on their merits. But in the end, evolution may provide a better model for how technological battles are won. One mutation does not, by itself, define progress. Instead, it creates another potential path for development, sparking additional changes and improvements until one finally breaks through and establishes a new organism.

It’s a great article about how technology often gets ahead of itself in the idea department. In time, the tech catches up with the brainstorm.

I couldn’t help but think of the Newton while reading the piece. In this case, Apple pre-empts itself with its own device.


We’ve seen pieces of the Newton, and of PDAs in general, transform into the modern smartphone: personal information management, notes, on-the-go apps. The Newton was made to be a stripped-down PC to take on the road; not quite as powerful, and much more portable, than a laptop. You could sync it with your computer, or you could run the device completely on its own.

Except for the syncing part, the iPhone does this. In fact, I know friends who only sync their iPhone when they have new iTunes content to upload. Most of the time they’re downloading apps and digesting music from Apple’s mobile apps. After the initial set-up, and if you ignore every software update available, it’s possible to control your iPhone without ever syncing again.

Same with the Newton. It was designed as a mobile computer – a standalone unite – just as some think that Apple’s supposed tablet might be.

Along with the hardware interface, the key is good software. The Newton had its share. In fact, it had apps like the ones Apple brags about in its iPhone commercials – financial apps, games, personal information apps, etc. Some developers are still making apps for the Newton, and work continues of Mac and Windows apps that help manage the device.

The iPhone’s popularity comes partly from its depth and breadth of apps. It’s safe to assume that this app-friendly environment will translate to the tablet.


The Newton’s level of abstraction – souping up a notepad metaphor and controlling it with a pen/stylus – helped make the device understandable. With a tablet, Apple has already done the hard work by standardizing the touchscreen interface. In both cases, Apple takes the prevailing interface innovation of the day and runs with it.

With the Newton, it was pen-based computing. With the iPhone, tablet, and even the mouse/trackpad, Apple is taking touch and building an empire.


In the Newton’s day, consuming iTunes-level media was tough. Hard drives weren’t big enough, Internet speeds weren’t fast enough, and the software didn’t exist to manage all that music and all those movies. We had Quicktime, and some simple CD players, but there’s no way I could have ripped my 8,000-song music library onto the computers of the day.

Given that, there were ways to consume media with the Newton. You can listen to music on one, with a little push and pull, and the Newton’s eBook format is still in use today, with tons of titles available. All before ever launched.

Think of the Newton, and the iPhone today, as the perfect airport device. If you don’t want to lug a bunch of books or a laptop on a trip, the portable Newton is perfect. Read a book, play a few games, scribble some notes to yourself. Whatever. If you’re a small business owner, or hooked up to a large corporate network, you can even get some work done.

This is the tablet ideal: something portable to carry all your consumable stuff.


The Newton was one of the first devices to help the idea of e-mail spread with NewtonMail. Here was a handhald mini computer that you could use to send faxes, make phone calls, and check your e-mail – and even browse the Internet.

A wifi card, a newer-model Newton, and some driver-fu, and you are still in business.

As fun and geeky as it is to connect with a Newton, it still pales to Mobile Safari. The web has grown up a lot, and it makes it almost silly to think about doing anything other than checking out text-only sites.

Now, exceptions exist. If you’re a member of the Newton community, half the fun is seeing how many exceptions you can create. But accessing the web is where the tablet will really shine.

The point is, Apple paved the way in accessing the web from a mobile device with the Newton. With the iPhone and soon, supposedly, the tablet, it’s built a mature system.


As the Wired article shows, pioneering projects often come out before the world is ready for them. For Oracle, the network PC lacked the infrastructure to deliver Internet-on-demand computing. But it helped show that the desktop computer wasn’t the last best idea out there.

It is worth noting that, in retrospect, the Newton was an expensive gadget. Without comparing specs and ability, when you look at a $500 unsubsidized iPhone compared to a $1,000 PDA, it’s easy to see where the Newton stretched the average American’s budget too tightly. It could be that, at the time, the technology simply cost more then than comparable technology costs now. Lower costs certainly lead to wider adoption, which explains why the Newton struggled to gain momentum.

But still, with the Newton, the idea of a mobile, self-sustaining device that allows you to consume media, get some work done, and make connections in an intuitive way was set in motion before the world was ready. Apple has shown, with the iPod and iPhone model, that the MessagePad ideals are still viable and ready for action.

Now that everyone is waiting with clenched teeth for the rumored tablet, the Newton ideal seems like it has finally found its place in the world.

Newton quote of the week: design victories

November 11th, 2009

“We had some little design victories, like the eMate or the 20th Anniversary Mac. But they were never mainstream products. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Apple lead designer Jonathan Ive, on the unoriginal design of Apple products during the ’90s.

[Via System Folder.]

Newton was ahead of its time

October 15th, 2009

Connected Internet has a discussion of how the Newton was simply waiting for the right technologies to come along.

Author shailpik says, during the Newton years, the hardware wasn’t advanced enough, the Internet was just getting its start, and file storage is now easier than ever:

It was task enough to make a portable computer, let alone a handheld one. Even if a practical tablet could be made, the price would be way too high for mass adoption at any level. Plus, what would the users have done with it? The Internet was nowhere near its current reach and digital content was still pretty much scattered all over the place. Forget online social networking.

I often hear that the Newton was ahead of its time, which can make us Newton users feel good that we’re using an advanced-at-the-time product. That, combined with its personality, makes a MessagePad or eMate a lot of fun.

Now we’ll see what tech companies do with touchscreen, tablet-like devices now that all the factors – technology, software, price – are coming together.

Gettysburg Address, Newton-ized

October 12th, 2009

Foyer scrota and severe heavers ago our flashovers brought force on thy cosmetician a new notion conceives in lubricate and deducted to the prosecution that all men are crated quail.

From Clark Humphrey’s Misc Media, circa 1994. His Newton Poetry version of the Gettsyburg Address comes about a third of the way down while discussing Newton’s handwriting recognition.

“It may not be able to make an exact digital version of what you write on it,” Humphrey says, “but it can turn it into computer-assisted cut-up poetry!”

In fact, that’s how I started Newton Poetry – take a random piece of poetry, write it into my MP110, and type down whatever came out.

Newton developer returns to Apple

September 29th, 2009

Interesting: Michael Tchao, a member of the ol’ Apple Newton MessagePad team, is coming back to Apple.

Tchao was responsible for selling the crazy idea of a handheld computing device to then-Apple president John Sculley.

Says The Unofficial Apple Weblog:

If you wanted to start doing a bit of speculating, it’s interesting to note that Tchao was part of the team that was responsible for Apple’s first tablet computer.

Funny how a Newton no longer qualifies as a PDA. With all the rumors, everyone wants to call it a “tablet.”

A pack to keep you organized

September 28th, 2009

'90s organized pack


[Via John from NewtonTalk.]

Newton quote of the week: cult classics

September 8th, 2009

“The Commodore Amiga was visionary; so was the Apple Newton. Both devices now share exalted status in the ranks of cult classic also rans, whirligigs which were ahead of their time or better than competitors’ products but which ultimately still lost their battles for market supremacy. Being first out the gate doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the winning horse in the Derby.”

Brian from, on eBook ecosystems.

Newton helped contribute to ‘Silicon Valley Syndrome’

June 18th, 2009

From Stanford’s Ethical Issues in Engineering:

In some fields of contemporary engineering in some countries, engineers work extremely long days and weeks, often under deadlines. Such engineers are often under immense pressure to achieve often-unrealistic project goals, as was the case from 1989 to 1992 during the development of the original Apple Newton. Psychiatrists coined the phrase “Silicon Valley Syndrome” to refer to the fact that the divorce rate and levels of alcohol and drug abuse are much higher in Silicon Valley than in the U.S. as a whole.

The “immense pressure” claimed one victim during the Newton’s development: programmer Ko Isono, who committed suicide on December 12, 1992.

Isono was said to have succumbed to the extreme pressure and deadlines while working on the first Newton MessagePad.

Steve Capps, Newton and Mac pioneer

May 18th, 2009


The RetroMacCast team recently aired an interview with Steve Capps, an Apple Fellow, original Macintosh team member, and Newton developer, in episodes 115 and 116.

Capps is one of the genuine Good Guys: decent, hard-working, and has a great way of talking about his work on the original Mac and Newton. He helped work on the Lisa, the Mac’s Finder, the Newton OS 1.0 and 2.0.

He eventually left Apple to work on Windows Active Desktop idea and Microsoft’s Internet efforts. Since then, he’s worked on AliceX – an iPhone version of the only Apple-released game ever available on the Macintosh.

There’s a Fake Steve Capps blog (his real blog, actually), a Steve Capps Day, and a real sense of respect surrounding the guy.

Check out the podcast (iTunes link) for a great look back at the glory days of the Mac and Newton systems, and a super interview with one of the great individuals in Apple history.

Another update to the Newton Sites page

May 14th, 2009

I finally updated the Newton Sites page by adding web sites I’ve found through referrals, NewtonTalk, Tony Kan’s My Apple Newton blog, random Google searches, and links provided by current Newton sites.

The eMate 300 popped up more often than not. I think it’s because, now that I have my own eMate, the proto-netbook was my focus for how-to articles and project ideas.

The article I added is particularly good because it expresses what a lot of us Newton users feel: our platform died much too soon.

In adding the Geek Techniques wireless eMate breakdown, I also came across a problem – namely, how to categorize all these Newton posts efficiently and logically.

The idea behind my Newton Sites project was to archive many Newton sites that are no longer maintained, and to provide a resource for people who are looking for Newton how-tos and historical information. Now I’ve made it a point to Delicious-ize everything that I come across under the “Newton” tag, and leave the sorting for later.

The problem is, a lot of these web sites fall under multiple categories. I have an “Archive” section, but what happens when that archived page explains a Newton software product? Which do I put it under?

And really, “How-To” could be its own category since most of what I uncovered since the last time I tackled this project fell under that heading. Like some arcane classification czar, or a taxonomist of the Newton, the struggle is in fitting sites in certain silos.

That’s where ideas like tags come in real handy. At Delicious or Flickr, when something falls under multiple categories, you simply add all that apply. A blog post on installing an eMate battery tray could be labeled both “How-To” and “Blogs” under my classification system.

It’s enough to boggle the mind.

So for now, the categories will stay:

  • Maintained: sites that are kept up-to-date
  • Abandoned: sites that haven’t been touched in years, but still have good Newton info
  • Software: repositories of Newton packages, drivers, and emulators
  • Blogs: web logs that focus or feature the MessagePad
  • Reviews: classic reviews of the various Newton models
  • Articles: random reviews, how-tos, and discussions about the Newton platform
  • Misc.: the catch-all category.

What we really need is a site or a resource, like the project, that can either host or link to this site list. The problem, however, goes back to my original complaint, which is that many Newton-related links are 404. I found there were so many dead-end links that I got frustrated and built my own resource. That turned into Newton Sites. But maybe someday someone can collect all these great, historical sites and give them their day. My project is simply a hobby.

I’m all for suggestions, so if you find something missing or incorrect, please let me know. Also, there are people way smarter than me when it comes to organizing and classification – so here’s your chance to shine. You’ll get your reward in heaven.

Or, if we ever meet, a beer.

This modest project, combined with Ryan Vetter’s Newton Knowledge Wiki, Morgan Aldridge’s UNNA, and Grant Hutchinson maintaining the NewtonTalk list – along with all those folks still working to maintain and improve our beloved device – should ensure the Newton remains in the public mind for years to come.