Apple Newton

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John Sculley

Under the direction of CEO John Sculley, Apple Computer (recently renamed Apple Inc.) developed the Newton platform from 1987 to 1993; his successors Gilbert Amelio and Steve Jobs resumed development until February 1998 when Jobs made the decision to kill the platform. Sculley revealed the first prototype Newton device in May 1992 at a press event in Chicago. He described Newton as both a device and a platform; he intended it to be a device for personal data organization and management and “a platform for wireless communications.” The device flourished as a PDA (personal digital assistant), but did not reach its potential in two-way wireless communications simply because the infrastructure for it was not ready at the time. Though other PDAs were released prior to the Newton, the term “personal digital assistant” was coined by Sculley in 1992, and for some time “PDA” referred specifically to the Newton.

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Newton device development

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eMate 300

The MessagePad, released in 1993, was the first in a series of Newton devices to be developed and sold on the market. The 1.4 pound physical device was collaboratively manufactured by Apple and Sharp. The MessagePad packed a 20MHz ARM 610 RISC processor, 640 kilobytes of RAM, and a 336x240 monochrome LCD touch screen with stylus and handwriting recognition support. It was powered by four AAA batteries. It ran Newton OS version 1.05 and cost $699.99.

Over the course of its five year run, six versions of the MessagePad were created. Each iterative device (MessagePad 100, 110, 120, 130, 2000, 2100) brought improvements. A faster 162MHz StrongARM SA-110 RISC processor, a backlit screen, and the move to AA batteries and flash memory made later revisions of the MessagePad far superior to its original incarnation. The later 2000 and 2100 models included a PC Card slot, methods for connecting an external keyboard, and a proprietary Newton InterConnect port. The InterConnect port was supposed to provide a way to connect external storage devices to the Newton, but Jobs killed the platform before anything useful was made of it.

The eMate 300 stands out in comparison to the other Newton MessagePad devices due to its unique form factor. It was billed as a low-cost laptop for the education market. It packed a 420x320 backlit display and came attached with a full-sized keyboard. It also featured something that the MessagePad line never had: an internal expansion slot. It was intended for use in the classroom. The eMate 300 certainly influenced the design of the first-generation clamshell iBook (which released in 1999). Sharp, Motorola, and Digital Ocean released their own devices that ran the Newton OS.

Newton platform development

All Newton devices ran various iterations of the Newton OS. The operating system was written entirely in C++ and boasted low power consumption. It was designed around handwriting recognition input. Apple licensed Calligrapher, an early yet sophisticated handwriting recognition engine developed by Russian company ParaGraph International. 1.x versions of the OS did not fare well with users; but with each software revision came better and more responsive recognizer capabilities.

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Newton OS

Version 2.0 (and higher) allowed various methods of inputting text into the device. Using a stylus, users could hand-print regular text, cursive, and even switch back and forth between the two. Handwriting could be turned into typed text or left as digital ink. Users also had the option to call up an on-screen QWERTY keyboard if that method was preferred. The recognizer did not rely on trained actions, so inputting text into a device was ready right out of the box. The OS accepted four types of text data: Text, Shapes, Sketches, and Ink Text. Text is self explanatory, and Sketches allowed users to draw free-hand. In Shapes mode, the OS could recognize when the user was drawing a specific shape. For example, if the user drew a circle the system was able to tell the difference between that shape and the letter “o”. Ink Text was scaled to a specific point size and could be formatted bold, italicized, and underlined.

The Newton OS shipped preloaded with many software applications created by Apple. In Notes users could create text-based documents using the various recognizer methods or the on-screen keyboard. Names was used for storing and organizing personal contacts. Contacts were categorized by “people”, “companies”, and “groups.” The Dates application allowed users to organize their events in a calendar. The calendar could be viewed in various grids including week, month, and year. Users could sync Notes, Names, and Dates data between their Newton devices and Mac and Windows PCs. Also, the Names and Dates applications communicated with each other; for example, if a birthday was attached to a contact form, this data would migrate to the calendar. The Newton platform introduced a new way of storing data called “soups”, and it was this development that allows applications to access other apps’ data. Other applications included Works (for drawing and word processing), Calculator, Formulas (with metric and currency conversions), and Clock (with alarm and timer functionality).

The Newton OS packed other features taken from the Macintosh experience. The OS organized applications using visual icons; accessing menus and tapping icons resulted in an audible response; documents could be sent over the Internet to others via email (later MessagePads with PC card slots required); and documents could be printed and faxed (optional modems required). The screen orientation could also be rotated a number of degrees in the settings, allowing for landscape and portrait views.

Third party development

Apple opened up the Newton OS to third-party developers with NewtonScript. Using this programming language developers could write their own programs to expand upon Apple’s offerings. Developers added functionality to Newton’s core set of applications. For example, stationary was added to Notes, and this allowed users to format their documents in various ways, including bullet-point and checklist forms. In Names, developers added additional contact types including “family” and “client”. Third-party applications included Pocket Quicken, QuickFigure Works, and various email clients and web browsers.

Steve Jobs Kills The Newton

According to a number of sources, the Newton platform was axed from the Apple product line for two main reasons. (1) The early Newton OS that shipped with the original MessagePad proved to be not so user friendly, especially when it came to the unpredictable handwriting recognition software. The press and other media outlets (including television and comic strips) panned and poked fun at the recognizer’s inability to pick up on simple words. (2) When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he found that the Newton platform was simply unprofitable. Some sources say that Apple sunk nearly $1 billion into Newton, and Jobs could no longer justify this expense. He believed it would be more profitable in the long run to invest Apple’s resources solely in the development of the Mac OS and Macintosh desktop and laptop computers.

The Newton hit the market in 1993 with much buzz around it. It aimed to revolutionize the mobile computing with its portability and advanced PDA feature set. Unfortunately, the original MessagePad shipped with relatively unstable software and the handwriting recognition capabilities certainly did not live up to Apple’s hype. The MessagePad lacked many of the more advanced features packed inside later models, so the initial group of buyers never really had the chance to experience desktop and Internet-based connectivity. For the most part, big purchasers of the later MessagePad models included educators and eager tech early adopters. The Newton had become a cult hit in the tech world, but much to the dismay of these owners Jobs found it necessary to cancel the tablet before it reached its maximal potential.

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Newton & iPhone


The Newton only lasted on the market for five years (between 1993 and 1998), but it remains a staple in computing. It was technically the very first device to be called a “personal digital assistant” and it helped shape the form factor for later PDAs and tablet computers. Most consider Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iOS successors to the Newton platform. Besides the lack of handwriting recognition, Apple’s current crop of mobile devices take many cues from the Newton including industrial design, touch implementation (successor of stylus input), and the inclusion of mobile application suits and connectivity.