Newton fans (including Woz!) meet online to geek out about long-discontinued device

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Organizer Paweł Piotrowski during the 2020 Worldwide Online Newton Conference.
Organizer Paweł Piotrowski during the Newton conference.
Photo: Paweł Piotrowski

A recent online conference dedicated to Apple’s much-maligned Newton drew dozens of fans from around the world — including Steve Wozniak and other Apple alumni.

After the 2020 Worldwide Online Newton Conference — the first gathering dedicated to the groundbreaking PDA in a decade — event organizer and Newton superfan Paweł Piotrowski marveled at the lasting impact of the handheld, which Apple discontinued almost 25 years ago.

“It is unbelievable that this old technology still connects people who make friendships because of their shared love of a small green device,” Piotrowski, who works as a college lecturer and live-stream technician in Edinburgh, Scotland, told Cult of Mac. “I’m glad this conference was able to build on that.”

A conference to celebrate the Newton

Before proceeding any further, yes, the Worldwide Online Newton Conference was a celebration of the Apple Newton, the series of personal digital assistants Apple released between 1993 and early 1998. Long before the iPhone, the PDA promised to redefine computing as we knew it.

Despite its unique features and capabilities, the Newton never took off commercially. Steve Jobs scuppered the project when he returned to Apple, ostensibly to redirect engineers to developing the Mac.

Today, naysayers frequently cast the Newton as a symbol of everything Apple did wrong during its ’90s slump. But a dedicated group of Newton fans work to keep it alive nearly a quarter-century after Apple ceased production.

“The Newton is like The Princess Bride,” Noah Leon, a Montreal-based Newton fan who directed the documentary Love Notes to Newton and served as the online conference’s emcee, told Cult of Mac. “Only a faithful few saw it when it came out, but over the years the people who do like it love to share it.”

A two-day Newton extravaganza

Guess who showed up as a surprise attendee at the online Newton conference: Steve Wozniak!
Guess who showed up as a surprise attendee!
Photo: Paweł Piotrowski

The two-day Worldwide Online Newton Conference happened over a weekend in early May. It featured presentations ranging from pastry-making in France using the Newton to Newton programming on a modern Mac. There was even a teardown of the specialized Schlumberger “Watson” Newton used for a time in the French health care system.

Divided into sessions lasting between 20 minutes and a half-hour, the conference ran from 4 p.m. through 10 p.m. UTC on two consecutive days. At its busiest, 60 attendees logged into the Zoom conference at once.

“We spanned time zones with guests in California to Canada, the Eastern USA to Eastern Europe, and all the way to New Zealand — although due to the time zone differences they only logged in for a short time,” Leon said. “There were lots of gray hairs in the Zoom conference — but also quite a few 30-40 year olds.” The youngest member of the group was 12 years old.

Some former Apple employees who worked on the Newton project mingled with fans during the online conference. Unexpectedly, colorful Apple co-founder Wozniak logged in to take part.

“I was surprised that Woz showed up,” Piotrowski said. “That was really nice. He just came to watch and listen. We asked him for a quick Q&A. He was really friendly and chatted with us for about half an hour.”

How the Worldwide Online Newton Conference came to be

Piotrowsk said he fell in love with the device after buying a secondhand Newton and accessories in his native Poland, where the devices were quite expensive.

“I was passionate about its simplicity and intuitiveness,” he told Cult of Mac. “Handwriting recognition was something magical at the time.” The device fit his needs perfectly, he said. “It is hard to describe, but I had a kind of ‘bond’ with [it].”

Eventually, he started the AppleNewtonFan website, which is jammed with Newton history and technical info.

“Together with other users from Poland, we began to exchange information and so the site developed,” he told Cult of Mac. “Over time, I was able to find NewtonTalk and other sites related to Newton, where I was learning about this device.”

A Newton superfan

A small part of Paweł Piotrowski's massive Newton collection
A small part of Paweł Piotrowski’s massive Newton collection.
Photo: Paweł Piotrowski

Piotrowski’s love of the Newton received an eBay-aided boost after he moved to Scotland in 2012. Today, he owns approximately 80 Newtons and is an active part of the Newton fan community online.

“The only limit to further collecting Newton is my budget,” he said. “I am trying to raise funds to buy new exhibits, trading other Apple equipment and exchanging with other users.”

Bringing together Newton fans from around the world

Newton fans from around the world flocked to get involved.
Newton fans from around the world flocked to get involved.
Screenshot: Paweł Piotrowski

The Newton might seem like nothing more than a footnote in Apple history — but it’s a very significant one. Devotees point out that no other Apple device ever replicated certain aspects of the Newton’s user interface and feature set. In fact, the futuristic Newton foreshadowed the mobile computing revolution that lifted Cupertino to its current world-beating status. The humble PDA paved the way for Apple’s push toward app-based mobile devices with the iPhone.

However, the Worldwide Online Newton Conference also speaks to a side of Apple that’s easy to forget at a time when seemingly everyone owns an iPhone. Apple inspires a passion on the part of its fans that you simply don’t see with other giant corporations.

Piotrowski said he is so happy with how the first conference went that he’s already planning a follow-up.

“We definitely will organize another one next year,” he said. “There is [also the] idea to organize smaller international meetings every month. I’m sure they will be shorter, more like two-three hours. But people will still be able to meet, chat and exchange ideas, projects and knowledge.”

At a time when Newton fans (and, frankly, everyone else) is doing the social-distancing thing, what better way could there be to bring them together to talk about something they love?