Thursday, May 19, 2011

So Close To Awesome

In May 2011, I received my first Apple Newton Message Pad 2000.

The 1990's saw rapid growth in personal computing, primarily for portable and handheld devices. The PDA explosion started in 1992, with John Sculley's introduction of the term to the world.

PDA-like devices, though, had already been around since at least the mid-1980's. By 1990, the market had seen several small computers, such as the Atari Portfolio, come to the market, and they all had functions that would classify them as PDA's by today's standards. All Sculley really did was to apply a name to the category.

The device that he specifically referred to as a PDA was Apple's Newton Message Pad.

What wasn't mentioned is that this was not the path that the Newton team envisioned. When the Newton was under development, it was seen as the next phase in personal computing, a small, easy to carry device that could perform all the functions of a regular computer. Apple sunk millions of dollars into the division, and somewhere along the way, the scope of the project grew, apparently too much. In order to keep the Newton line from interfering with Apple's Macintosh line, the Newton was scaled back to become a computer companion device.

By this time, other devices were waiting in the wings. Jeff Hawkins and his team had worked with Tandy in development of their handheld line, the Zoomer, and were now looking at starting a company of their own; Palm Computing. While Sculley may have created the term PDA, it would be Palm that defined it. Other companies planned similar devices as well, based on systems like Windows CE (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Microsoft's PC operating system).

All of these competing devices, though, paled compared to the Newton line. While Sculley may have cut the scale of the Newton back, the devices themselves remained as powerful as ever. They may have been "PDA's", but actually fell in the space between that class and laptops or even regular computers. From processor speed to storage, the Newton had more in common with a regular computer than simply a digital companion it was sold as.

This blurry line between PDA and regular computer contributed to the difficulties encountered in marketing the device. It was also more expensive.

In 1997, the Newton division released the final three models; the Message Pads (MP) 2000 and 2100, and the eMate laptop. Of the three, the laptop had the most potential but was deliberately set to lower specs than the two Message Pads.

The MP2000, the first model released in 1997, had startling specs -

162 MHz StrongARM processor
4MB Flash memory
2 PCMCIA slots
480x320 resolution backlit screen
Infrared port
Interconnect port

It was as powerful as many laptops of the day, and the processor alone put it well into regular computer territory. Compare these with the PalmPilot Professional, also released in early 1997 -

16.58 MHz DragonBall MC68328 processor
160x160 resolution screen
Serial port

The deal killer was the price; the Newton retailed for $950, the PalmPilot Professional was $399.

The MP2000 series, as well as the eMate, weren't PDA's. What is evident in the last Newtons is that they were entering new territory; true mobile computing. The 2000 series compare wonderfully with many of today's tablet computers. There is an active community, one might even say rabid, that still support the Newton.

We can only speculate as to what the Newton could have become. The division was briefly spun-off in 1997, only to be brought back into Apple after Steve Jobs returned. The Newton division was then closed down in February 1998. Many of its brightest minds left Apple, never to return. Some stayed, while others did eventually return, speculatively after being asked to; Steve Jobs had this little idea he was working on.

But the Newton was a spectacular misfit, and a pretty damned awesome one.

(A very nice article on the Newton division can be found at Low End Mac -  "The Story Behind Apple's Newton" by Tom Hormby )

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