Happy Birthday, Newton!

Apple PDA Turns Ten

by Robert Velarde (Posted: 7/2/03)

"What is Newton? Newton is digital. Newton is personal. Newton is magic.
Newton is as powerful as a computer. Newton is as simple as a piece of paper."

--Early Apple Newton television commercial, 1993

"Apple Computer, Inc. today announced it will discontinue further development
of the Newton operating system and Newton OS-based products . . ."

Ten years ago, under the leadership of John Sculley, Apple released the Newton Message Pad. Less than five years later, under the leadership of Steve Jobs, Apple killed the Newton. Despite its relatively short life (some might say it lasted a good while in technology years), the Newton was a revolutionary device. Released in August 1993 to an eager crowd at Macworld Expo in Boston, David MacNeil of Pen Computing Magazine described the unveiling of the Newton as follows: ". . . the first 5,000 [Newton] Message Pads sold out within hours. Users went nuts over them, gladly paying the US$800" (http://www.pencomputing.com/frames/newton_obituary.html).

In honor of Newton's tenth birthday, it seems fitting for me to write at least a portion of this article on a Newton, which is exactly what I'm doing at the moment. I'm sitting comfortably on a couch while my Newton Message Pad 2100 reclines on a makeshift stand and is running in a rotated screen mode--a feature, by the way, that took a while to be included in even modern personal digital assistants (PDAs). Attached to my 2100 is my trusty Newton keyboard, not full size, but a more than adequate accessory for the Newton (as an aside, a clever Newton user has figured out a way to attach the popular Stowaway folding keyboard to the Newton: http://www.splorp.com/newton/stowaway/). I'm running Newton Works, a sort of mini-office suite of programs which, via a Mac or PC, can export and import documents.


Interested in getting an Apple Newton, but don't know where to find one? Several options are available including a few direct sales businesses. I’ve had great success ordering from J&K Sales, where a used Newton 2100 can be had for as low as $60. GEM Enterprises also offers Newtons. Of course, eBay is also a viable option for tracking down a Newton. Depending on your needs, a less expensive model such as the 120 or 130 may suffice (note that the 120 does not have a backlight). Also keep in mind that connecting a Newton to a desktop system, either Mac or PC, can be a tricky process depending on your setup. For more information see the multi-part Newton FAQ or consult the users on Newtontalk.


Do you have an 802.11b wireless network at home or work, but don't have a PDA that can connect? Go wireless for $100 in three steps. First, get a used Newton 2000 or 2100 (preferably a 2100) for around $60. Previous models, such as the 120 and 130, will not work wirelessly. Second, get a Newton compatible wireless PC card (I purchased a Lucent card for $30). Third, pay $10 to register the Newton wireless driver. Add some Newton User Madness, stir, let cool five minutes and you are on your way to being on your wireless “Newtwork” on the cheap.


Why am I doing this when I have a perfectly suitable iBook just a few feet away from me? The "Newton User Madness," or NUM, has gotten hold of me. Despite the fact that Apple officially closed the door on the Newton product line in 1998, a thriving Newton community still exists and, I must admit that I, too, have been hit with NUM. Note that I do not mean to use the term NUM in a derogatory sense, only as a way of describing the dedication and commitment Newton users tend to have for their beloved Message Pads. Incidentally, there does not seem to be a cure for NUM, but it can be controlled by continuing to do seemingly impossible things with a Newton.

Today the market is saturated with PDAs produced by various manufacturers and running competing operating systems (Palm, Microsoft Pocket PC, Symbian, etc.). Such was not the case when the original Apple Newton Message Pad was released at MacWorld in Boston in 1993. There was competition, of course, but the PDA market was in its infancy and well-established PDA platforms did not yet exist. These days it seems companies like Sony release a new PDA every few weeks. At the time, though, it should be pointed out that Apple was concerned with a competing product known as the Tandy Zoomer, which was released shortly prior to the unveiling of the Newton. In any case, August 2003 will mark the 10th anniversary of the release of the historically significant Apple Newton. Happy birthday, Newton!

So what is it about the Newton that continues to captivate thousands and afflict them with Newton User Madness? I certainly cannot speak for the Newton community (though you can hear them yourself by subscribing to the Newtontalk mailing list). After all, I have used both Palm-based and Pocket PC devices--aren't these PDAs the epitome of contemporary über-PDA technology? Perhaps that's a topic for another article.

Though the original and later versions of the Newton ran at 20MHz, the stakes were raised significantly by the release of the Newton 2000 and 2100. Even by today's standards, these Newtons boast some powerful features that put many a modern PDA to shame. At 162MHz, no other PDA rivaled the speed of the Newton until the relatively recent release of PDAs running at speeds of 150MHz (such as the Casio E-125), 206MHz (the first Compaq iPAQ PDA models) and, even more recently, Xscale devices running as fast as 400MHz. The Palm Tungsten C, for example, runs at 400 MHz. Victor Rehorst, administrator of Newtontalk, recently commented on the key role played by the Newton in the development of the ARM processors used in popular devices today: "Without the Newton, the StrongARM core (SA-110) and the later version with built-in I/O functionality (SA-1110, used in the iPAQ and others) may not have existed. Apple and ARM worked closely together to expand upon the ARM 710 (the processor originally targeted for the 2000, and kept for the eMate) architecture." In any event, 162MHz is plenty for a PDA and the Newton uses its speed and capabilities well. In addition, like desktop computers, PDAs are not defined solely by chip speed. Other factors and components are also critical, such as the operating system, expansion capabilities, battery life, and so forth.


Speaking of expansion capabilities, the Newton 2x00 series includes two PC card slots capable of utilizing a variety of cards, such as memory cards. One person afflicted with NUM has even designed a driver to allow users to take advantage of compact flash cards and microdrives in the Newton with the use of a PC card adapter, despite some protestations that such a thing was extremely difficult to accomplish (see http://www.kallisys.com/newton/ata/). With the ability to add decent-sized memory cards, some with NUM have turned their Newtons into MP3 players. In addition to using memory cards, the Newton can also use PC card modems, ethernet cards and, with a Newton 2x00 series model, wireless cards (yes, I said wireless--see the sidebar for more details). I use my Newton 2100 with a Lucent WaveLAN card and am able to surf the net thanks to helpful software like NetHopper (http://www.unna.org/unna/internet/web-browsers/) and the cleverly named and still supported Newt's Cape (http://mywebpages.comcast.net/saweyer/newton/newtscape.htm). I also send and receive e-mail using SimpleMail, a free program available at http://www.simple.dial.pipex.com/. The fact that the Newton can connect to my Airport Extreme wireless network using 128-bit encryption simply astounds me.


Will there ever be another Newton? This question comes up every now and then among those with NUM and, occasionally, even crops up in the mainstream media. The short answer is, no, there will never be another Newton device produced by Apple. Why am I so sure of this? Unfortunately, the Newton brand suffered some bad press. The media had a field day making fun of problems with handwriting recognition in the early models, prompting even cartoonist Gary Trudeau to spend a week poking fun at the device (see http://hci.stanford.edu/hcils/examples/newton.html), though later he reportedly became a fan after Apple sent him a Newton 2000. By the way, with the issues worked out, the handwriting recognition on the Newton is first rate. The problem with the early Newtons involved the fact that the handwriting recognition was dictionary-based and the early OS included only a small word list. "For NOS 2.0 Apple unveiled Rosetta," remarked Rehorst, "the printed recognizer, which had much higher accuracy rates--provided that you printed, of course." Rosetta has evolved into what is known as Inkwell in OS X Jaguar. At any rate, the bad press associated with the Newton brand makes it extremely unlikely that Apple will ever release another device by that name.

Now that I have upset the majority of those with NUM by stating that Apple will not produce another Newton, let me clear things up a bit. I said there would never be another "Newton" designed by Apple. This, of course, is not to say there will never be another PDA or PDA-like device produced by Apple. I merely stated that it would certainly not be called a Newton. What are the possibilities, then? Curiously enough, Apple owns the trademark to iPhone (tm). Of course, Apple owns a lot of trademarks and patents, but this does not necessarily mean they will produce such a device. Those with NUM have been burned too many times with rumors and hoaxes of allegedly new Apple PDAs. Given the success of the Apple iPod MP3 player, though, and the inclusion of Inkwell technology (handwriting recognition) in OS X Jaguar, it is an interesting conjecture to consider the possibilities. Add to this the iPhone possibilities and, well, the ideas that come to mind are enough to make many of those with NUM fall out of their chairs, begin frothing at the mouth, and reach for their wallets--ready to shell out whatever Apple might ask for a stylish convergence device that could possibly play music, handle PDA functions, serve as a mobile phone and make them breakfast in bed with its robotic appendages and advanced AI. Well, maybe it wouldn't be able to make breakfast, but the robotic arms would be cool!

Unfortunately, at a recent gathering Steve Jobs essentially said there were no plans for an Apple PDA or tablet-like device (see http://www.macobserver.com/article/2003/06/05.9.shtml for example). Instead, Apple's emphasis seems to be on seamlessly synchronizing popular devices such as cell phones. Apple's successful MP3 player, the iPod, however, does include some basic PDA functions such as a calendar, address book and clock. I'd certainly be interested in a sleek iPod-like PDA with a color screen, long battery life, multimedia capabilities, integrated wireless options, incredible expansion options, possibly an integrated phone and a great operating system, but then I wake up and realize that even innovative companies like Apple are not going to cater to my personal gadget-crazed fantasies. Some would argue that the iPod is successful because it basically does one thing and does it very well, while a device like the Newton attempted to do too much.


Since this article is posted on the Christian Macintosh Users Group, I feel compelled to make at least one relevant observation in closing. While technology can be a great help in ministry, we need to be careful to avoid the potential pitfalls that can accompany its use. The latest technology is not always the best. Neither is it always necessary. The early Christians got along just fine without high-tech sound systems and jumbo video screens. C.S. Lewis made a comment once about what he termed "chronological snobbery." The most recent technology (or book), is not necessarily the best or better than something older. Apple Newton devices, for instance, are extremely capable, despite the fact that they were discontinued some five years ago. Of course, I do not mean to indicate that Christians should shun technology, rather that it should be used with a balanced level of discernment. Two helpful books related to this subject include The Soul in Cyberspace by Douglas Groothuis and Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Quentin Schultz. In a future article, or possibly a series of articles, I hope to explore issues regarding contemporary mobile technology and the proclamation and defense of the gospel.


An early Apple Newton television commercial asked the question "Where is Newton?" and answered by stating, "Newton's in small towns and hamlets. Newton's in the urban jungle. Newton can get you from the urban jungle to the nearest hamlet. Newton goes wherever people need to communicate ... Newton is everywhere." Where is my Newton? It's right beside me. Happy birthday, Newton!

Robert Velarde, co-author of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press), is a writer and editor based in Colorado. He received his undergraduate degree in music from the California State University Long Beach and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary. He uses his Apple Newton Message Pad 2100 regularly.