Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Newton was one of the world's first personal digital assistants (PDA). Developed by Apple Computer and sold from 1993 to 1998, it was based on the ARM processor, and featured handwriting recognition. Apple's official name for the device was MessagePad; the term Newton was Apple's name for the operating system it used, but popular usage of the word Newton has grown to include the device and its software together.
Newton was unsuccessful in the marketplace for two primary reasons: its high price (which went up to $1000 when models 2000 and 2100 were introduced), and its large size (it failed the "pocket test" by not fitting in an average coat, shirt, or pants pocket). Critics also panned its handwriting recognition. These initial problems marred Newton's reputation in the eyes of the public, and PDAs would remain a niche product until Palm, Inc. introduced the Palm Pilot, before the Newton was discontinued. The Palm Pilot, with its smaller, thinner shape; cheaper cost; and more reliable (though less intuitive) GraffitiŽ handwriting recognition system, managed to restore the viability of the PDA market after Newton's commercial failure.
The Newton marketing campaign trumpeted its handwriting recognition, though in initial versions it was fairly inaccurate. The original handwriting recognition engine was called Calligrapher, and was licensed from a Russian company called Paragraph International. It was actually quite sophisticated; unlike the later Palm Pilot's Graffiti which made the user learn a new handwriting system and write each letter in an input area, Newton learned the user's handwriting (using a database of known words to make guesses as to what the user was writing) and could interpret writing anywhere on the screen. Newton could also recognize and clean up simple drawn shapes such as triangles, circles, and squares, and had an intuitive system for handwritten editing (such as scratching out words to be deleted, circling text to be selected, or using written carets to mark inserts).
Later releases of the Newton operating system retained the original recognizer for compatibility, but added a printed-text recognizer, code-named "Rosetta," which was developed by Apple, included in version 2.0 of the Newton operating system, and refined in Newton 2.1. Rosetta was generally considered a significant improvement and many users consider the Newton 2.1 handwriting recognition software better than any of the alternatives since. By the time Apple discontinued the Newton in 1998, the handwriting recognition was greatly improved, and may be the best "real handwriting" recognition (as opposed to pseudo-handwriting input mechanisms like Graffiti) to have ever been available to the public. This may be one reason why the Newton still has a hard-core following to this day.
Recognition and computation of handwritten horizontal and vertical formulas such as "1 + 2 =" was also under development but never released because the principal engineer working on it went on leave.
Even given the age of the hardware and software, Newtons still demand a sale price on the used market far greater than that of PDAs produced by other companies. As of 2004 the Newton 2000 and 2100 still sell, without accessories, for over $100, despite the hardware being at least six years old.
Newton used an advanced object-oriented programming system called NewtonScript, developed by Apple employee Walter Smith . One of the major complaints programmers had was that the Toolbox programming environment was overpriced at $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 Newton. It has been suggested that the NewtonScript programming system should be made available open-source (as "abandonware") but most Newton enthusiasts consider this possibility to be highly unlikely.
Data in Newton was stored in object-oriented databases known as soups. One of the revolutionary aspects of 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. While the soup concept worked remarkably well within the Newton system itself, it caused several usability issues. First, it made it extremely difficult to synchronize data with other systems, like a desktop Macintosh or PC, making the Newton a data island. Apple's utility to perform this task, the Newton Connection Utility, was exceedingly complex and was never completed to perform to the satisfaction of most users. The recognition that a handheld computer needed to work within existing the data environment of its users was key to the success of the later Palm Pilot platform, even though the Palm was technically inferior. The second consequence of the data-object soup was that objects could extend built-in applications such as the address book so seamlessly that Newton users could not distinguish which program or add-on object was responsible for the various features on their own system. A user rebuilding their system after extended usage might find themselves unable to manually restore their system to the same functionality because some long-forgotten downloaded extension was missing. There was no easy way to get a listing of all installed objects on a system. Finally, the data soup concept worked well for data like addresses, which benefit from being shared cross-functionally, but it worked poorly for discrete data sets like files and documents. This difficulty in working and sharing data with other systems, stemming from the too revolutionary data-object soup system, was a key contributor to Newton's demise.
The MessagePad used Macintosh-standard serial ports (round Mini-DIN 8 connectors instead of the more common trapezoidal DE-9, commonly called DB-9. The 2000/2100 models had a proprietary small flat connector used with an adapter. In addition, all models also had infrared connectivity. Unlike the Palm, all MessagePad models were equipped with a standard PCMCIA expansion slot (two on the 2000/2100). This allowed native modem and even Ethernet connectivity; Newton users have also written drivers for 802.11b wireless networking cards and ATA-type flash memory cards, a category that includes the popular CompactFlash format. With the 1xx series, an optional keyboard became available, which could also be used via the dongle on a 2x00. Newton could also dial a phone number through the MessagePad speaker (simply hold a telephone handset up to the speaker) and fax / email support was built in at the operating system level (although it required external cards).
The MessagePad 2000 and 2100, with a vastly improved handwriting recognition system, 160 MHz ARM processor, Newton 2.1, and a better, clearer, backlit screen, were among Apple's finest products. Although their large size kept them from being as popular as today's PalmOS devices, many users still swear by them. Their handwriting recognition is still considered by many the best in the world, with only the recent Tablet PC handwriting recognition system coming close. Newton 2.0 and 2.1 were in many ways a breakthrough in handheld operating systems, one that many feel has yet to be beaten even years after its discontinuation.
The MessagePad could be used with the screen turned horizontally ("landscape") as well as vertically ("portrait"). A change of a setting would instantly rotate the contents of the display by ninety degrees. Handwriting recognition would still work properly with the display rotated.
Apple and third parties marketed several "wallets" for the MessagePads, which would hold them securely along with the owner's credit cards, driver's license, business cards, and cash. These wallets were even larger than the MessagePads and even less able to fit in a pocket, so they were most often used as a protective case for the unit to shield it from bumps and scratches.
A small detachable serial keyboard was available separately.
The Newton in development
The Newton project was not originally intended to produce a PDA. The PDA category did not exist for most of Newton's genesis, and the "personal digital assistant" moniker itself was coined by John Sculley relatively late in the development cycle. Newton was, in fact, intended to be a complete reinvention of personal computing. For most of its design lifecycle Newton had a large-format screen, more internal memory, and a rich object-oriented graphics kernel. One of the original motivating scenarios for the design was known as the "Architect Scenario," in which Newton's designers imagined a residential architect working quickly with a client to sketch, clean up, and interactively modify a simple two-dimensional home plan.
For a portion of the Newton's development cycle (roughly the middle third ), the project's primary programming language was Dylan, a small, efficient object-oriented Lisp variant that still retains some interest as a programming language. Although it was efficient (for its day, and considering its substantial run-time dynamism), Dylan was a tough sell for the large-format Newton (and for a development team unused to Lisp programming). With the move to the smaller form factor, Dylan was relegated to experimental status in the "Bauhaus Project" and eventually cancelled outright. Had it been retained, Dylan, with garbage collection and close OS integration, would have preceded Microsoft's managed code revolution by over a decade.
The project missed by far its original goals to reinvent personal computing, and then to rewrite contemporary application programming. The Newton project's broad vision fell victim to project slippage, feature creep, and a growing fear that it would interfere with Macintosh sales. It was reinvented as a PDA which would be a complementary Macintosh peripheral instead of a stand-alone computer which might compete with the Macintosh.
The eMate 300 was offered to schools in 1997 as an inexpensive ($799 US, originally sold to education markets only) and extremely durable computer for classroom use. The eMate had a 480x320 16-tone grayscale screen, a stylus, a full-sized keyboard, an infrared port, and standard Macintosh serial/LocalTalk port. Power came from built-in rechargeable batteries, which lasted 28 hours. Its exterior was 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 300 was cancelled along with the rest of the Newton line.
Many prototypes of additional Newton models were spotted. Most notable was a Newton tablet or "slate," a large, flat screen that could be written on. Others included a "Kids Newton" with side handgrips and buttons, "VideoPads" which would have incorporated a video camera and screen on their flip-top covers for two-way communications, the "Mini 2000" which would have been very similar to Palm Pilot, and the "NewtonPhone" (developed by Siemens AG) which incorporated a handset and a keyboard.
Before the Newton project was cancelled, it was "spun off" into its own company, Newton Inc., but was reabsorbed several months later when Steve Jobs ousted Apple CEO Gil Amelio and reassumed control of Apple. There has since been continual speculation that Apple might release a new PDA with some Newton technology or collaborate with Palm. Apple continues to deny that such a project will ever happen.
The Apple iPod is somewhat of a descendant of the Newton in that it is a pocket-sized grayscale programmable device based on the ARM processor. Two ex-Apple Newton developers founded Pixo, the company that created the iPod's OS.
Feeding a bit of speculation, Apple put the "Print Recognizer" part of the Newton 2.1 handwriting recognition system into Mac OS X version 10.2 (known as "Jaguar"). It can be used with graphics tablets to seamlessly input handwritten printed text anywhere there was an insertion point on the screen. This technology, known as "Inkwell", appears in the System Preferences whenever a tablet input device is plugged in. Whether Apple will ever utilize such technology again in a handheld device remains to be seen.
In June 2004, Apple CEO Steve Jobs indicated that he was proud that Apple resisted pressure to market a new handheld computer. While a small group of Mac faithful consumers have lobbied Apple to sell such a device, the worldwide market for PDAs was in a decline at the time, and Apple chose not to develop the device because demand would have been inadequate.
- MessagePad (also known as the H1000, OMP or Original MessagePad; later renamed MessagePad 100)
- MessagePad 110 (slightly longer and narrower, with integrated flip cover and retracting stylus)
- MessagePad 120
- MessagePad 130 (backlit)
- eMate 300 (backlit with built-in keyboard)
- MessagePad 2000 (a significant upgrade; much faster, larger form factor)
- MessagePad 2100 (raised internal RAM to 4MB)
The NewtonOS was also licensed to a number of third party developers including Sharp and Motorola who developed additional PDA devices that used the operating system.
Appearances in popular culture
- The Newton was featured in the movie Under Siege 2, where the main character, played by Steven Seagal, uses it to fax a call for help from a phone on a passenger train.
- Garry Trudeau ridiculed it in a series of episodes of his popular comic, Doonesbury. The last panel of one strip, which shows a character reading the words "egg freckles?" from his Newton , became an Easter egg in the Newton operating system itself (version 2.0 and earlier). It can be seen by writing the words egg freckles then highlighting them and tapping the Assist button.
- In an episode of The Simpsons titled "Lisa on Ice", which first aired November 13, 1994, school bully Nelson Muntz has one of his buddies take a memo on a Newton. When he writes "Beat up Martin" on the screen, the handwriting recognition turns it into "Eat up Martha." The bully throws his Newton at Martin instead.
- In early episodes of the series The X-Files, the FBI agents use Newtons.
- In the end scene of Larry Laffer Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! the woman says "I even had a Newton".
- The character of Kate Libby in Hackers has a MessagePad which is seen in a number of scenes.
- Newton FAQ
- Newton Gallery
- Newton software archives
- Larry Yaeger's page on the development of the Rosetta recogniser engine
- Newton Secrets, with photos of prototypes
- Newton Cadillac prototype info
- History of Newton handwriting recognition technology
- Newton Software
- The NewtonTalk mailing list
- NewtonSearch, a searchable index of Newton websites
- NewtonRepair, Apple has discontinued support for the Newton platform however Repairs /upgrades are still available here!
- NewtonUpgrades, Upgrade your newton 2000/2100/eMate Battery, speed upgrades, backlight replacements!
- Newton programming books and references in PDF form
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