Among the thirty plus boxes of stuff I shipped from Japan to Florida last year was an obsolete gadget that intrigued me for a while in the early 1990s, but is today all but useless. To the technically-minded it might have value of another sort, but in my eyes it has devolved into nothing more than a curiosity. I was looking at iPads in the Apple Store yesterday, the store rep saying something about the development of this or that feature and I suddenly recalled the Apple Newton MessagePad 120 that sits in pristine hibernation in a bottom drawer of my desk.
Apple’s Newton was an early version of what eventually came to be called the personal digital assistant, and the company’s first foray into the tablet platform. For better or worse, it was one of those ‘great ideas’ from Apple that didn’t pan out—at least not initially in the earliest form. Ask around today and you won’t find many who know what an Apple Newton is. Development started in 1987 and by 1998 Apple had ended the project. In the Apple Store yesterday I asked the store rep if he knew much about the Newton and his answer was basically, “The what?” Young guy, early twenties who understandably doesn’t remember much about electronics in his diaper days. But then few are unfamiliar with the developments that came out of the Newton—the iPhone, iPod Touch and most recently the iPad—all children of the first tablet platform, the Newton.
The MessagePad was a PDA developed by Apple for the Newton platform in 1993. Electronic engineering and manufacture of the devices was done in Japan by Sharp. It ran the Newton OS, which included handwriting recognition software. I recall this feature and stumbled about with it for a long time while the software learned my handwriting. It was clunky but fun at the time. Lots of double taps to choose a word from the correction popup. The device measures eight inches in height, four wide, with a one inch thickness. Weight is one pound. Trust Apple to come up with a catchy codename; it was ‘Gelato’ for the MessagePad 120.
I suppose we could sit around and imagine Apple scrapping the whole idea when they discontinued the Newton, but somebody would have picked it up, and probably somebody with less pizazz and daring than Apple. Sitting here now and holding the Newton in my hand I try to trace the line from heavy clunkiness to elegant magic that describes the iPad 2. Though basically ignorant of the work that goes into computer development, it impresses me that Apple went from Newton to iPad 2 in just thirteen years. But as the iPad commercial says, “It’s only the beginning.”