On the Newton Messagepad

Poor handwriting recognition was just the part that became industry legend. John Gruber explains why Apple's first tablet computer didn't do so well.


  1. I thought my Newton was a great little device, even with it’s decidedly odd take on my handwriting. But the author is right– without wi-fi, there just wasn’t a lot you needed one for. I miss you, Newton!

  2. The surprising thing about the Thurriot article that Gruber links to is that it ignores the even earlier history of Microsoft’s forays into pen computing. “Windows for Pen Computing” was an add-on for Win 3.1. XP Tablet edition came years later.

    The unsurprising thing about the Thurriot article that Gruber links to is that it ignores the even earlier history of pen computing that Microsoft’s products were derivatives of.

      1. I figured that, when you get into the realm of concepts, you might as well give Kay’s Dynabook a nod and leave it at that.

  3. Well, as far as I can remember, WiFi wasn’t really common in the 1990s, so I don’t really see that as a major issue. The fact that the Newton was a PDA that you couldn’t put into a pocket always seemed to be the major problem. What good was an organizer that was nearly as difficult to lug around as a laptop?

    1. I’m not even certain wi-fi existed. But when you were looking around for a phone outlet for your Newton’s outboard modem, you wished for it!

    2. I think his argument is that the Newton’s design philosophy more or less required wireless, which didn’t properly exist at the time, which is why it had trouble against palm.

      Palm pilots were, explicitly and by design, extensions of your real computer. Drop it in the cradle, a little chunk of your desktop’s state gets carved off and carried with you for perusal and manipulation, and then copied back when you return. This ended up hurting them later(even on the palmOS smartphones, and the later palm pilots with wifi, networking never really integrated very well with the experience); but it was a glaringly superior model for a time when wireless connectivity was somewhere between expensive and unavailable.

      The Newton team’s attempt to make a more or less freestanding device was arguably doomed because connectivity was not yet ready.

  4. Calling the Newton a “tablet” computer is like calling a Palm Pilot 3 a supercomputer. It’s just the wrong term.

  5. Tablet computing is one of those memes that comes up every decade or two, like Swine Flu. Acquired immunity doesn’t transfer to each new generation.

    I still have a Newton and a Newton keyboard(!) somewhere in my closet. It’s not bad as a small computer, but Apple seemed to push it away from being something useful like a netbook, and towards being a proprietary dead-end.

    It was kind of useful as a portable email device (via modem).

  6. I thought the handwriting recognition “bugs” were a PLUS– great way to write surreal stories and poetry, write out your ideas and they got translated to weird madlib gibberish.

  7. You’re right. Wifi didn’t hit the streets until 1998. The Newton was discontinued at the beginning of 1998. A lot of Gruber’s comments are harsh since he hasn’t understood the state of various technologies at that time. Lots of technologies we take for granted today weren’t around back then. The first digital music player only hit the streets in 1998. The first iPod didn’t come into being until 2001ish.

  8. The Newton as I remember was kinda clunkly the battery did not last as long as expected. I had a couple of friends use them and it was great at short intervals once you worked out the handwriting interface. It was a stepping stone, the PDA’s were able to excell in what the Newton could not do, handwriting recognition, portability with an adequate battery supply. If Apple had developed this technology during the rise of the PDA’s we probably would be on tablets now.

  9. I had a Newton MessagePad, then a TRGpro (a Palm III with a CF slot), then an Asus Pocket PC with WiFi and now an EeePC.

    The MessagePad simply wasn’t good enough at what it claimed to do and it was too big.

    The TRGpro was really good at the things it did and it was small. As an interesting side note I’ve recently got it back into working order so I can have some fun taking photos with the old PalmPix digital camera.

    The Pocket PC was used heaps more and for longer because of its WiFi and web browser. My mobile phone took over as my diary and to-do list, but a small device that can browse the web from anywhere in the house was useful for a long time.

    My EeePC finally took over from the Pocket PC though. Having a tiny PC that runs a full-blown version of Windows XP gives me very nearly everything I need in a PC in a wonderfully portable package. I’m typing this very comment from it.

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