Today in Apple history: Newton MessagePad 120 is Apple’s first great mobile device

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The MessagePad 120 perfects Apple's PDA line.
Do you remember the Newton MessagePad 120?
Photo: Fzurell/Flickr CC

January 30: Today in Apple history: MessagePad 120 is Apple's first great mobile device January 30, 1995: Apple Computer launches the Newton MessagePad 120, the first truly great device in an unfairly maligned product line.

Coming 18 months after the original Newton MessagePad, the upgraded PDA packs more power — and truly shines once Newton OS 2.0 rolls out.

Newton MessagePad: Apple’s first tablet

The Newton MessagePad product line proved astonishingly ahead of its time. In fact, he Newton laid the crucial foundation for much of Apple’s later success with mobile devices. However, it debuted about a decade too early to truly take off.

The PDA let users take notes, make calendar entries, etc. It even featured surprisingly smart artificial intelligence to make use of contextual data. For instance, writing the phrase “Meet Killian Bell for lunch on Wednesday” would create an entry in the MessagePad’s calendar app at the appropriate time.

The Newton MessagePad was ahead of its time
Truly ahead of its time.
Photo: Apple

The device also let users beam data to other Newtons or rival electronic organizers via an infrared transmitter.

The Newton was often regarded, both inside and outside Apple, as CEO John Sculley‘s answer to the Mac.

The PDA was his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line.

“It was Sculley’s Macintosh,” is how Frank O’Mahoney, one of the Apple marketing managers who worked on the Newton, told me when I interviewed him for my book The Apple Revolution. “It was Sculley’s opportunity to do what Steve had done, but in his own category of product.”

By early 1995, Sculley had been gone from Apple for more than a year. However, the Newton MessagePad project continued at a frankly dazzling pace.

Cupertino produced so many variations that it’s a bit confusing to make sense of them today.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how confused the Apple device lineup was in the mid-1990s, consider this: Despite coming just a year-and-a-half after the first MessagePad shipped in 1993, the 120 was already the fourth model Apple made.

Newton MessagePad 120: Code name Gelato

Code-named “Gelato,” the MessagePad 120 followed the original MessagePad, MessagePad 100 and MessagePad 110. Spec-wise, it came in both 1MB and 2MB options. The device packed a 20-MHz ARM 610 processor and 4MB of upgradable ROM. The MessagePad 120 looked basically identical to its MessagePad 110 predecessor, although it lacked the rubberized surface.

Initially, customers who bought the MessagePad 120 had to use the same operating system that shipped with the original. Later, they could upgrade to the vastly superior Newton OS 2.0, which corrected many of the problems associated with the first model.

These problems included dodgy handwriting recognition. Newton OS 2.0 fixed that with new Rosetta and ParaGraph handwriting software (the first for printed text, the second for cursive). The upgraded mobile operating system also let users sketch shapes on-screen, which would then be recognized as deformable vector graphics. In other words, scribble a circle on your MessagePad and the device would recognize it as a circle.

In addition, much like iPads or the larger iPhone Plus models, Newton OS 2.0 allowed users to choose between landscape and portrait orientations.

It even brought a proto-Siri feature, whereby you could ask questions (although not via voice recognition) like, “How do I [do a certain thing]?” The Newton would then guide you through the necessary steps.

Is this the Newton MessagePad for you?

As I’ve mentioned multiple times in “Today in Apple history” posts, I’ve got a massive soft spot for Apple during the 1990s. Sure, if I was investing in Apple I would’ve hated it (unless I had the foresight to hold onto my shares). But it was a time when Apple was taking some massive risks and truly — to use a later phrase — “thinking different.” It was a fun, albeit frustrating, period to be an Apple fan.

The Newton MessagePad epitomized this. The first-gen device was ever-so-slightly crippled, so it never achieved the marketplace momentum it should have. A pre-internet device, it would have benefited immeasurably from connectivity. That is exactly what made the iPhone such a big hit years later.

If you were going to pick up a MessagePad today to see what all the fuss was about, the Newton MessagePad 120 with Newton OS 2.0 is the first model I could give an unequivocal recommendation. In this way, the device line really was Sculley’s Macintosh. As with the Mac, it took a few iterations before Apple finally nailed the formula.

In 1995, a MessagePad 120 cost $599, with an extra $109 for the operating system upgrade. Today, you could probably pick one up for a hundred bucks (or even less if you’re lucky).

As a piece of iconic Apple equipment, it’s never going to have the same value as a first-generation iPhone or an original Macintosh 128K. It really should, though.

Do you remember the MessagePad 120? Leave your comments below.