Apple’s Evolutionary Newton Turns Twenty

When I started my doctoral studies in 1995, I had a great computer, but it wasn’t a laptop. I really wanted something simple that I could take with me to the library and take notes on journal articles. So I bought a Newton and a keyboard. It synced to my Mac. It had a version of AppleWorks, so I could move rtf files back and forth. The screen was big enough that I could write with it. Lots of people in the computer industry mocked it, but it worked perfectly for me. I still remember the amazed look my friend Trevor’s face when it transformed his writing in to text, and then made his little drawing of a bird into a pict.

In the years since, I’ve watched as lots of little bits from the Newton showed up in other Apple products. Interface sounds in system 8. The animation of the trash can in system 9. The dock in OS X, plus the little smoke puffs when you drag something off of it. And even some deep stuff. For instance, the file system that so confounded people when the iPad first came out—files associated with programs, but not accessible via a file browser—that was there in the Newton.

So I’m with Harry McCracken when he says in his stroll down memory lane:

When Jobs decided to shut down the Newton division, color screens were still unaffordable, touch input was crude and wireless data didn’t get much more exciting than two-way paging. When he launched the first iPhone nine years later, technology allowed Apple to build the sort of devices it wanted to create in the 1990s, but couldn’t. He may have killed Newton, but he didn’t kill the dream behind it so much as press a giant pause button–and after finally spending quality time with a MessagePad, I’m more convinced than ever that he made the right call.

It just wasn’t time yet. I’m glad that the time has come back ’round.

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