From MessagePad to iPad: 20 years on, the Newton's impact can still be felt

An anniversary of sorts quietly passed us this weekend: Saturday, August 3rd, marked the 20th year since Apple began selling the Newton MessagePad, its then-groundbreaking tablet device with handwriting recognition. While the device was never hugely commercially successful, its development, creation and sale inevitably, inexorably lead us to where we are today, a "Post PC world" dominated by touch-sensitive smartphones and cellphones. The Newton's influence can even be felt in Apple's Mac line, with products like the MacBook Air.

The Personal Digital Assistant

The Newton MessagePad debuted in 1992, when then-CEO John Sculley showed off a prototype device to the crowd at the summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Chicago. The state of the art for Apple's Macintosh line - virtually its entire business - was machines like the Macintosh IIvx (the pre-PowerPC days). The PowerBook line, Apple's first truly portable computers (the "luggable" Macintosh Portable notwithstanding), was only a year old.

The MessagePad would finally go on sale more than a year later, debuting at the Macworld Boston trade show for $700. For the price, you got a device equipped with a pressure-sensitive black and white LCD display, LocalTalk port for networking with other Apple products, infrared port and PCMCIA slot for additional expansion.

Interacting with a Newton device was not unlike using a Mac of the day running "Classic" Mac OS - you tapped on icons; the interface was graphical, and there were a number of built-in apps designed to organize your life: notes, pictures, calendar, contacts, calculator, to do list; third party software development was encouraged, though in an era before the Internet was popular, most third party apps were sold by computer resellers on software shelves, delivered in expensive PCMCIA cards.

In introducing the Newton, Sculley coined a phrase that's been around ever since: Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA. Sculley's dream was to see the Newton become standard issue for executives and others who wanted to get a better handle on the information they needed to do their jobs.

The Newton never sold to Apple's expectations, and what's worse, it was ridiculed after it was released. Few saw the point in spending so much money to do something that you could do with pen and paper, and, most critically, the handwriting recognition software built in to the device was not ready for prime time. It really wouldn't be until the 2.0 release of the operating system software, which wouldn't happen for another three years.

Meet the MacBook Air's distant ancestor

But along the way Apple did some amazing things. One of the most remarkable footnotes in the Newton story is the eMate 300, a Newton-based mini-laptop designed especially for the educational market. Apple saw an opportunity to get the devices into schools that were looking for a way to help develop computer literacy and electronic learning among students. The device was built around a solid plastic clamshell case that was designed to handle the rough treatment you'd expect of schoolchildren. That's a picture of it above, sitting next to an iPhone 5.

The eMate 300's semi-translucent casing was a precursor of the iMac, and its kid-friendly design presaged the iBook by several years. The eMate 300, like other Newton devices, was all solid-state - there was no hard disk drive or floppy disk. Fast forward a decade to 2008 and witness the launch of the MacBook Air - a fully-functional laptop computer running OS X that offered as an option the then-exotic Solid State Drive (SSD) technology - permanent storage without any moving parts. Now SSDs are used throughout Apple's product line. But a decade before, Apple was on the same track.

Apple ultimately killed the Newton at the behest of Steve Jobs, who returned to the company as interim CEO following Gil Amelio's unceremonious departure. It'd be almost a decade before Apple introduced the first iPhone. But in the interim, PDAs became everyday devices used by millions around the world. Palm and Handspring became popular ways for digitally-connected people to keep track of appointments, contacts and more; eventually that technology would find its way into cell handsets.

Newton's enduring legacy

Newton's brain trust would go on to have a big impact - Paul Mercer, a software developer at Apple who worked on the Newton technology, would leave Apple and go on to form Pixo, whose operating system served as the basis for the original iPod. Michael Tchao is widely credited with getting the Newton off the ground to begin with after convincing John Scully to back the project on an plane flight. He came back to Apple in 2009 after a 15 year absence, where he's VP of iPad product marketing.

Steve Jobs' well-reported disdain for styluses drove the development of the iOS interface as something based on touch and finger motion, but the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad are clearly the spiritual successors of the Newton - devices that help us manage our day to day tasks, communicate and stay in touch with what's important to us. Newton devices are a distant memory of a different era at Apple, but 20 years later, their impact can still be felt every time we pick up an iOS device or an iPod.

Did you use a MessagePad or an eMate back in the day? Are you sad that they're gone, or are you happy Apple killed them off? Talk to me!

  • LOL!
  • The Newton was a great little computer and easy to use, the eMate was a bit of a nightmare in almost every way.
  • What makes you say that? As you can see from the photo above, I have an eMate, and I love it. My only problem with it is the sealed rechargeable battery pack - I have to replace mine, and I've been putting it off, because it involves significant disassembly and soldering.
  • To each their own. I found it awkward, slow and kind of weirdly designed. The screen was at an odd angle for the pen most of the time and I thought the Newton was better without the keyboard. Probably the fact that I only used it for a few days (years ago now) and you still have your's contributes to our respective opinions.
  • Great article Peter and a fun walk down memory lane. I actually had and used one of the smaller Newton pads. It worked only with the stylus and was thicker than a MacBook Pro but otherwise about the height/width of the Blackberry Playbook.
  • Thanks! What did you use the MessagePad for? For my part, I picked up an original MessagePad in the late 90s, after they'd been cancelled, from a post on a Usenet newsgroup. I still have it in a box somewhere, but I couldn't find it when I needed to shoot the photo for this feature.
  • I had the original newton when I was a senior in medical school. It was a great device for the time. I had a few medical references on it which were much more convenient than lugging around three or four books in my lab coat. As the devices evolved, it was easier to carry a Handspring visor or the original Windows CE devices in the pocket. These devices easily fit the screen of the Apple. However the functionality and polish of the Apple Newton I always felt was far superior (if you didn't require the handwriting recognition). Little things were important, for example if you entered the Contacts birthday it would show up in the calendar. This was not present in the palm or windows ce devices initially. I give the Newton credit for being the first one to crawl out the primordial soup. It is amazing what these devices have evolved into.
  • Absolutely! Now, I would have serious issues trying to do any portion of my job without my smartphone and tablet in hand.
  • Lol, just more of a toy and something to lay around and impress my college buddies. It was issued to my Mom as a work device and she just never used it so she gave it to me because I wanted it so bad. I can't remember when it came out but I got my hands on it in the mid to late 1990s. I thought it would be cool to take to class and take notes on but even thought the hand writing recognition was pretty decent, it just wasn't practical and I seem to remember the battery not being able to take several classes of continuous use. None the less, I guess it made be feel at the top of the technology food chain for a while, especially considering it was well outside of my financial capabilities at the time.
  • I didn't own a PDA of any kind until the Palm III, but it's not hard to see where the great things about that OS came from. The Newton looked as though it was a precursor of something very useful, like a mobile phone run from a backpack. I was happy to wait until something like Moore's Law brought it down to a more convenient/affordable level. I was much more curious about the eMate, and would still like to see what its capabilities feel like.
  • Hard to tell exactly what led to the Newton's demise, but one of the biggest obstacles was Jane Pauley's husband! That's an insider, pop-culture literacy item! Guesses, anyone?
  • .... (drum roll) Yes, indeed, Garry Trudeau did in Apple! :-) (OK, I exaggerate.) His long-running series of comic strips, however, featuring the Newton's mis-understanding of what was entered were incredibly funny and contributed to its slow adoption. Yet, you really don't want your product to be the butt of jokes! It's the kiss of death for aspiring or re-aspiring politicians, too! The Palm PDA wisely used a structured script instead, which worked incredibly well. Its GUI and menu-driven system, along with stylus and Graffiti, was, to use one of Jobs's favorite words, amazing! In fact, the entire Palm OS was brilliant and the i-devices still haven't caught up in terms of basic PIM apps (personal information management such as tasks and calendar). You would like an example? The i-devices still can't snooze an alert! Wow! And it's 2013. I use them every day, but that inability to snooze is an amazing omission--and even a dangerous one. I forgot to take my medicine one day... thanks to a sent away alert that I thought I'd remember! Never had a Newton, though... Peter, hope you can find yours and resurrect it--along with providing us with photos. I've read about people surfin' the 'net with them. Great column, by the way!
  • I was always amazed at how people could extend the Newton to do things it wasn't supposed to (i.e. host a web server). While I never used one, I did use a bunch of eMates and have an amusing story. The eMate had a small rechargeable battery that was used for the bios, and would hold a charge for about a month or so. What Apple engineers didn't figure was summer vacation. All the eMates we had went into a closet as the school was closed during the summer Three months later we took them out and none of them (we had around 50 of them) would start again. Apple was cool about fixing them so it was more of a nuisance than anything else. The sad part was when the school retired them, nobody wanted them (the school sold old electronics for funds) and most of them went into the recycling program. Thanks for the memories with this article!
  • Never had a newton, but I did have a couple of Palms. They actually did some stuff I actually preferred over my iPhone. But I remember thinking back in the day, "Wouldn't it be cool if the palm could........." and of course the iPhone can do that now, and more. Lemme tell you a secret, I miss my stylus :)