An Interview with an Apple Newton User

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The Apple Newton MessagePad hasn’t been in production since 1998, but there are people that still use this touchpad device as their main PDA. I was curious to find out why this product continues to be popular, so I sat down with Marisa Giancarla, a self-proclaimed Newton fan.

Marisa is a retired software engineer from the IT department of Macromedia, who is located in Redwood City, California.

When did you first discover the Newton?

I first discovered the Newton when it was first announced back in 1993. I loved the idea of something that could use a pen for input and neaten-up my drawings. I did not buy one of the first units but waited until the 110 came out to purchase one…

How many models have you owned over the years?

I have owned a 110, 130, 2100 and eMate.

What types of things do you use your Newton for during a typical day?

I am retired so I don’t have a day job to use the Newton at anymore. In a typical day I use it for checking email, making sketches and taking notes.

Is there still an active community of Newton users?

Yes, the Newton community is quite active, with the NewtonTalk email list seeing around 10 posts a day. The community still produces software such as ATA Flash card, WiFi and BlueTooth drivers.

Tell me about your website PocketFiction.com and your project to create an eBook reader for the Newton.

My website is primarily for Pulp Fiction ebooks, but I do have sections for the Newton and General Magic PDAs as book reading targets. I am working on creating an ebook reader for the Newton to be able to read the 700+ ebooks on my website, but the fact that connectivity software is so spotty it is quite a project.

What programming language do you use?

I am using the native NewtonScript to do the project. It is quite a nice OOP environment for developing and testing software. It is hard to believe it is as old an environment and it features most of the modern properties of current IDEs. It uses a VM processor with byte-code interpretation, much like the new Google G1 phone and maybe the iPhone (showing my ignorance of the iPhone here).

What are you thoughts on the iPhone and iPod Touch? Do you think they are the Newton of the 21st century?

I have not seen the iPhone SDK so I don’t know how it compares development-wise to the Newton, but the lack of pen and ink support and handwriting recognition still haven’t been reached on the iPhone. There is a natural draw to try and compare the two, both being handheld computing devices from the same company, but they are still quite different. I would love to see a tablet device from Apple, then at least the hardware features would be comparable.

What keeps you coming back to the Newton as your main PDA after trying other devices and what phone do you use?

I keep coming back to the Newton due to its screen-size which makes it good for taking notes, and how well integrated the pen is to the whole OS. I use a Google G1 phone, but it was a close call to an iPhone 3G. In the end it was a matter of diversity which I expect the Google phones will have as they can come from any phone company instead of being locked-in to one from Apple…

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What are some of your favorite newton apps?

The software I use most is Mail V (email plugin), NewtsCape (web browser), PaperBoy (NNTP news client), and Solito DX (solitaire game).

What kinds of modifications have people been able to do with their Newtons?

There have been projects to replace the backlight, overclock the system, add a 2nd serial port, a headphone jack (for streaming MP3 music) and fixes for some of the hardware issues that various models of the Newton are prone to.

Have you done any hardware modifications to your Newton?

I am thinking of doing the backlight upgrade to a white model, but I would hate to be away from my Newton while it was getting done. I may just buy one with it preinstalled and swap my data from the two units.

Do you think you’ll be using a Newton for another 10 years? And if not, what would your dream device be?

It all depends on how well the patch to fix the 2010 issue works. The Newton runs out of bits to store the date in 2010, and there is a user created patch to get around that but I don’t know if anyone has fully tested it.

My ideal device would be something like an iPhone or G1 but with a screen the size of the Newton 2100 or slightly larger. It is a testament to the design of the Newton that 10 years later it is still a useful device…

Well, there you have it, the Apple Newton Messagepad continues to thrive for some people – at least for another year. Do we have any other Newton hold-outs here on The Gadgeteer? If so, please speak up and share your stories.


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{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Jared December 23, 2008, 10:01 pm

    I also was an early adopter of the Newton, and have owned 3 generations. What appealed to me about the device was that it represented a complete departure from computers of the day. Instead of discrete files, it dealt with soups of information that could be shared and accessed by many programs. It truly had an elegant operating system and was rather revolutionary.

    What ultimately doomed the Newton was that it was bulky, expensive, and had poor synchronization software by comparison to later devices such as the Palm Pilot. The handwriting recognition eventually evolved into a decent system, however it never quite got over the bad press associated with it’s original HWR software.

    The Newton’s first generation handwriting recognition system (Calligrapher), had to be trained and was prone to mistakes. The subsequent replacement developed by Apple (Rosetta) was much improved. The company that owned Calligrapher licensed it to Microsoft (as Transcriber), and it wound up on the very first Windows CE devices. So you can imagine the irony of reading reviews touting the strength of the Pocket PC HWR compared to the Newton, when in fact it was the same engine that had originally spawned so much ridicule.

    I still use my Newton 2100 to this day, primarily to run as an elegant RPN calculator. Design calculations that contributed to several generations of chip lithography tools, have flowed through a Newton. It’s not too far of a stretch to say that the chips in your computer and other devices today were enabled in a small but fundamental way by an ancient PDA. ;)

    Sadly, the backlighting has lost it’s brightness over the years and the NiMH batteries barely will hold a charge. With the advent of the iPhone and the App Store, there are some alternative scientific apps out there now. But nothing quite compares to some of the brilliant apps that ran on the Newton.

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  • Kevin December 24, 2008, 10:08 am

    I’ve owned many Palm devices (from the PalmPilot 5000 to the Treo 650), I have a 3G iPhone but I can tell you I absolutely loved my Apple Newton. I owned a 120 and a 130 and just thought it was an amazing device. The only reasons I stopped using it were the battery life, it was kind of bulky, and the inability to sync with a Windows machine (the major problem). Honestly, I still miss it. I wish Apple had a similar device today.

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  • Mark December 24, 2008, 12:24 pm

    I never owned a Newton, but I still have my HP200LX from 1994…

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  • smitty December 24, 2008, 3:33 pm

    My first PDA was a Newton MessagePad 110, which was stolen. It was replaced by a 120 (with the older 1.3 OS on it). I upgraded that, then bought a 2000 when it came out, and upgraded it just before the Newton was canceled.

    What I liked about it was that the OS never tried to be a desktop OS. It was designed as a handheld, write-on-the-screen device. The eMate, although built with an integrated keyboard, was never a really good writing machine for this reason – you had to take your hand off the keyboard to tap the screen too often. (This same frustration can be seen using the AlphaSmart Dana. They are great for straight writing, but using the handheld functionality is less than appealing on that bulky a device.) The Newton’s detachable keyboard created a system that was handheld, but allowed for large-scale data entry when needed. (I would love it if my iPhone would pair with one of my BlueTooth keyboards for the same effect.)

    Jared covered the later HWR system that came with the 2.0 OS – that made things much better. On your Newton, you could write as ink (fast!), then read and even convert to text later. There is no fast data entry on any handheld today – you have to type your thumbs off, or use a Palm/WinCE and hope the ink looks vaguely similar to real letters, because nothing is reading the gestures behind them. That’s why the proliferation of laptops at meetings and conferences. Tablets are not handheld – they are lap- or desk- or arm-held, and that is quite a different matter. No one who carries around a letter-sized legal pad thinks of their setup as handheld – it’s just portable. So why do Tablet users think they can compare Tablets to the iPhone or Palm? Every time I show a Tablet user my iPhone, they say “oh, but my tablet reads my handwriting” or similar. But it’s not in your pocket! With the Newton, you could (barely – and only in some pants) carry it in your pocket. We got used to carrying them everywhere, but the size was just enough to be irritating. I would sometimes wear a sport coat just to have the larger pockets.

    But it was all worth it. If they had been updating the system over the years (so that it would sync, pair with BlueTooth, connect via WiFi without having a card sticking out of the side, and work with a SIP client, for starters) I’d be ready to send back my iPhone.

    Well, maybe not – but almost!

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  • Meredyth December 25, 2008, 12:29 pm

    I still have my Newton 110 (the clear, special edition one) in a place of honor in my desk. Such a wonderful piece of tech!

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  • Genghis December 27, 2008, 6:01 pm

    I use my Apple Newton daily as well.

    First off, its fit-for-purpose GUI design that tightly integrates gestures and stylus operation is what creates a bond with users. The fact that it grows to know your unique handwriting style takes you beyond a mere bond and into intimacy.

    The Wifi and Bluetooth implementations really bring the Newton into the 21st Century. When the Newton is combined with a Personal Web Server or IIS, one can browse the Web, gain access to files on a desktop and install new packages completely wirelessly.

    I used to worry a lot about synchronisation because I was used to using desktop PIM applications at the time I acquired my first Newton in 2002. But I found that once I got my head around putting a decent no-desktop required back up regime in place, I was untethered and free.

    A journalist in Germany has hooked a Nokia Cardphone 2 to a Newton and uses it for SMS and cell phone calls.

    Is it perfect? The only thing that prevents a Newton from becoming a desktop or laptop replacement in a work environment is a lack of MS Office and PDF support. However others will hanker for colour support, better web page rendering and flash movie support. Smartphones generally beat the Newton for pocketability but then their screens are so small that they become impracticable for taking decent notes in a meeting or lecture. Anyway, a Newton is about the size of a standard Franklin Day Planner which are still in common use even though they might sport the latest smartphone.

    For most things one can generally get by without them.

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  • Glen Low January 15, 2009, 6:53 pm

    I used to have several MessagePads back in the day, loved carrying them around and trying to take notes, even if the handwriting recognition was a bit patchy. On the other hand, my handwriting definitely improved during the period!

    My iPhone app Instaviz is a little homage to the whole Newton philosophy of minimal interface. It uses Newton-like shape recognition to convert shapes and links into beautifully laid-out graphs. Do check it out!

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  • Anna January 16, 2010, 4:01 pm

    I would still be using and loving my newt had I not crashed the screen on it back in 2005. :( (I had a 130). So many things that the newton did right that others really struggle with. One thing that I loved best, was the GUI in apps like Notes. So many organizational apps I’ve seen, and none of the ones I’ve tried quite get it the way I want it. I miss how I want to make outlines, drag and drop outlines around, collapse and expand them, have checkmarks to check off on them if I want to, and so on. I want to be able to do so without sacrificing an arm/leg/kidney/firstborn/whatever. And the routing menu buttons on the Newton OS are amazing. Such a time-saver. Just reading about it makes me miss it so bad.

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