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Apple Newton

The Newton was an early personal digital assistant (PDA) developed by Apple Computer and sold from 1993 to 1998. It was based on the ARM processor, and featured handwriting recognition. Officially the term refers to the operating system that ran the Apple MessagePad along with similar products from Radio Shack and other manufacturers.

It was unsuccessful in the marketplace: critics pointed at its high price and complicated desktop connectivity, both problems solved soon after with the Palm Pilot.

The marketing campaign trumpeted the handwriting recognition, which critics considered poor in the initial versions. Garry Trudeau ridiculed it in a series of episodes of his popular comic, Doonesbury. The original handwriting recognition was actually very sophisticated (learning the user's handwriting instead of forcing the user to learn a new handwriting system, and using a database of known words to make guesses as to what the user was writing). Later versions of the handwriting recognition abandoned the word database; they were significantly improved and many users consider the Newton 2000 handwriting recognition software better than any of the alternatives since.

The Newton had an advanced object-oriented programming system called NewtonScript, developed by Apple employee Walter Smith (http://wsmith.best.vwh.net/); one of the major complaints programmers had was that the programming environment was overpriced - on top of purchasing a Newton for nearly $1000 US, the Toolbox programming environment cost an additional $1000 (late in the life of the Newton the programming environment was made available for free). Additionally, it required learning a new way of programming. Despite this, many third-party and shareware applications were (and continue to be) available for the Newton. It has been suggested that the Newtonscript programming system be made available open-source (as "abandonware") but most Newton enthusiasts consider this possibility to be highly unlikely.

Data in the Newton was stored in object-oriented databases known as soups; one of the revolutionary aspects of the Newton was that soups were available to all programs; and programs could operate cross-soup; meaning that the calendar could refer to names in the address book; a note in the notepad could be converted to an appointment, and so forth; and the soups could be programmer-extended - a new address book enhancement could be built on the data from the existing address book.

Before the Newton project was cancelled, it was "spun off" into its own company, Newton Inc; but this reabsorbed several months later when Steve Jobs ousted Apple CEO Gil Amelio and re-took control of Apple; since then there has been continual speculation of when Apple would release a new PDA with some Newton technology (or possibly a combination of technology from Newton and Palm); Apple continues to deny that such a project will ever happen.

Interestingly, however, the Apple iPod is somewhat of a descendant of the Newton in that it is a pocket-sized greyscale programmable device based on the ARM processor. Two ex-Apple Newton developers founded Pixo http://www.pixo.com, the company that created the iPod's OS.

The Newton used standard serial ports (Apple db9 style, via a dongle connector in the 2x00 series) for communications; all models also had infrared connectivity. Unlike the Palm, all Newton models were equipped with a standard PCMCIA expansion slot (2 on the 2x00 series). This allowed native modem and even ethernet connectivity. With the 1xx series, an optional keyboard became available, which could also be used via the dongle on a 2x00. Newtons could also dial a phone number through its speaker (simply hold any telephone up to the Newton speaker) and fax / email support was built in at the OS level (although it required external cards).

The Newton 2x00, with a vastly-improved handwriting recognition system, 160 MHz ARM processor, Newton OS 2.1, and a better, clearer, backlit screen, was perhaps one of Apple's finest products. Although its large size was not conducive to the ubiquitous nature of today's PalmOS devices, many users still swear by them. Its handwriting recognition is still the best in the world, with only the Tablet PC handwriting recognition system coming even close. Newton OS 2 was in many ways a breakthrough in handheld operating systems, one that many feel has yet to be beaten, even years after its discontinuation.

 
The Newton eMate 300 was offered to schools in 1997 as an inexpensive (about $500 US, less in quantity to schools) and extremely durable computer for classroom use. The eMate had the same monochrome screen as the MessagePad, a stylus, a full-sized keyboard, an infrared port and ports for printers and modems. Power came from built-in rechargable batteries. Its exterior a translucent plastic green shell with a built-in handle. It was supposed to be durable enough to be dropped from arm height on a hard floor without damage, a rugged design that would eventually influence the first iBook series. The eMate was cancelled along with the rest of the Newton line.

Feeding a bit of speculation, Apple put the Newton 2x00's handwriting recognition system into Mac OS X version 10.2 (known as "Jaguar"), which can be used with any graphics tablet to seamlessly input handwritten text anywhere there was an insertion point on the screen. This technology, known as "Ink", appears in System Preferences whenever a tablet is plugged in but lacks the Newton's ability to recognize cursive handwriting in addition to printing. Whether this means Apple will ever utilize such technology again in a handheld device remains to be seen.

Newton models: Messagepad (now known as Original Messagepad or OMP)
Newton 100 (similar to OMP)
Newton 110 New form factor.
Newton 120
Newton 130
Newton eMate
Newton 2000
Newton 2100

See:

  • Apple's announcement (http://www.apple.com/pr/library/1998/feb/27newton) that it would discontinue the Newton

  • Newton FAQ (http://www.chuma.org/newton/faq/)



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