Why would Hutchinson cling to and even rely on a clunky obsolete digital message pad, an Apple failure so big it inspired f-bomb rage in Steve Jobs and a week’s worth of damning Doonesbury comic strips?
Hutchinson is just one of a few thousand people worldwide who collect and even use Apple’s first mobile computing device, discontinued in 1998 after a number of incarnations over a rocky five-year run.
Ahead of its time
Some look at the incredible computing power of the iPhone or the iPad and will grant at least a little bit of gratitude for the Newton.
Technologically sophisticated for its time, problems with Newton’s handwriting recognition, and a hefty price tag kept it out of most hands. And don’t forget, Jobs may have taken great personal pride in killing it when he returned to Apple because it was a project headed by the people who initially ousted him from his own company.
But the keepers of the flame — or should we say green-lit screens — say Newton was turning a corner when it got shelved. The reputation, its place on a number of failed devices lists, is not fair, they say. Newton enthusiasts can chuckle about the jokes, but quickly come to its defense.
When Hutchinson speaks of the device’s epic failure, he gestures with air quotes around the word failure.
“The Newton did not fail,” said Hutchinson, a web-design and software consultant from Calgary, Alberta. “It was early to market and it was killed just as it was getting going. The thing that gets under my skin is when people call Google Glass or the Apple Car the next Newton. Don’t compare Beta Max tapes to Newton.
“Pop culture references are too engrained. We still laugh and have a good sense of humor about it. It’s because we know.”
The handwriting on the wall
The Newton Talk mailing list, which Hutchinson oversees, has a membership of just under 1,000. With several active Newton user groups overseas (Japan is a “hotbed” for Newton aficionados), he believes the number of Newtonists is around 4,000.
To appreciate the various generations of Newtons and the designs, check out the Newton Flickr group, just shy of 300 members.
The Newton MessagePad arrived in 1993 for a cost of $699. It was roughly 7 by 4 inches and weighed about one pound.
Users were attracted to the device for how it could link contacts and calendars, and the stylus-based touchscreen in replace of a keyboard was exciting for the time. Icons clearly marked the various tasks it could perform and features were easily launched with a single tap of the stylus’ tip. Networking through modem accessories and IR ports were attractive to workers in the field and one feature, Newton Assistant, was a stylus-driven precursor to the voice-activated iPhone assistant, Siri.
Near the end, the Newton was embraced by certain professionals, including doctors, scientists, educators and executives. The software for recognizing handwriting was improved and nearly perfect by the end, enthusiasts say.
But the problems in the early days overshadowed those improvements. Even as Apple refined the software over the five years (one version, the eMate, had a keyboard), sales were unimpressive. Jobs expressed disdain for the stylus, saying future computing power should be guided with our fingertips.
Newton continues to live
New Newton’s were no more but the ones that survived with its defenders continued to run.
The Newton faithful continued to develop software, and even devised hardware and software hacks to give it more modern functions.
Morgan Aldridge, runs two Newton-based websites, including the United Network of Newton Archives, that share software, software mirrors and app developing resources. He said some members are working on ways to bring SSL encryption to the Newton so that users could use email more securely.
Aldridge has an iPhone and an iPad, but still likes using a Newton — he owns four — for management of personal information. He became interested in Newton devices after they had been discontinued but of an interest in preserving technology.
He says the numbers in the Newton groups are slowly declining.
“We’re definitely getting smaller,” said Aldridge, a developer and systems administrator in Vermont. “Now there are really viable tablet solutions out there. For a long time, despite the age of the Newton, it still had a power and software that was unrivaled. Once the iPhone came out, the iPad and the app store, software and tablets began to diverse from the original Newton abilities.”
Adam Tow, a tech engineer for Vox Media, loved the Newton and even organized a picket outside Apple’s office in 1998 in hopes the company would reconsider.
Tow later poured his energy into a user group that held yearly conferences until recently. He has written software and designed apps to keep Newtons a glow. But now his collection of Newtons rest in a box.
Tow has moved on.
“I remember when the first iPhone came out,” Tow remembered. “The Newton User Group meeting was a little less than two weeks later. I remember thinking ‘This is it. It’s here. We have our Newton back.’”