Way Ahead of the Technology
August 5, 2013 9:51 AM   Subscribe


 
Eat up Martha.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:56 AM on August 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


There's a chunk of Newton that still hasn't been achieved by any other platform. I particularly liked the way data was available across apps (via the "soups" storage method) so that any address book could update contacts, the calendar app could read notes and so on. Almost the exact opposite of the horrible iOS sandboxing model.

But I could never work out how to write on it without resting my hand on the screen, and that always felt wrong.
posted by bonaldi at 10:00 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


As Jobs said, "And eventually we got it right when we moved on to iPhones and the iPad."

That was the key -- I went out and snapped up a Newton as soon as I could scrape the money together, and my main problem with it was that it didn't replace anything in a way that worked better for the price. It was nice to have a notepad and something to do while sitting around waiting for meetings to happen, but I could get that much cheaper with a paper notepad and a GameBoy.

The biggest barrier to adoption of an entirely new thing is just getting it to people -- when you combine a pocket computer with a cell phone, people buy the cell phone and only later realize, "Hey, having a computer with me all the time turns out to be quite useful."
posted by Etrigan at 10:01 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I still miss the future where I could do what the Newton concept envisioned.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2013


I had an eMate.
posted by Sokka shot first at 10:19 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fundamentally, the hardware really wasn't there. We didn't have the CPU, and we didn't have the battery life -- even the top model, the MP 2100, only had a 162MHz StrongArm. And all the components were huge, so you ended up with a very large and heavy device.

Compare that to the Palm Pilot, which had nothing like the power, but was small enough to fit in a pocket, ran a long time on a pair of AAA batteries, and weighed a fraction.

The original MP handwriting debacle didn't help, but this was just a big, heavy, battery hungry device.
posted by eriko at 10:19 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, does anybody other than me remember a weird 1-800 number run by Apple that you could call and get a recorded Newton joke/marketing message? Am I just delusional? More than usual, I mean.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:20 AM on August 5, 2013


I used to love PDAs for their own sake but the truth is for most of us they were a solution looking for a problem. Their utility was such that certain vertical markets could get value out of them, and a particular kind of professional who has many constantly shifting appointments and contacts, but for the rest of us it was this clunky thing that didn't do much -- you could carry it anywhere but you didn't really need what little it could do.

In the end the most value I got out of them was the fun of writing my own programs for them.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:24 AM on August 5, 2013


The original handwriting recognition on the Newton was a marketing disaster, which obscured just how good the handwriting recognition eventually got. My Dad's end-of-lifecycle Newton read his terrible handwriting with remarkable consistency, which is more than I could ever do. I still wish my iPhone could read handwriting, instead of forcing me to type on tiny little keys.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:27 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've never found a paper calendar that would ring to remind me that I have an appointment. Or a paper calendar that also had an infinite-notebook attached, a dozen (or a dozen dozen) books tucked inside, as well as a little connect four game. My Palm had all of these, and came in a robust little package as well.

the Newton may have been ahead of it's time (and was more expensive than later PDAs), but anyone who is a serious PDA user can tell you that a PDA isn't just a glorified pad of paper or paper calendar. There are somethings they may not do as well - for example, I found it easier to plan my university assignments with a paper agenda because it was larger and had a weekly view. But a PDA is much better when you need reminders for something like medication or appointments. the Connect four and the free ereader where just bonuses for me. Far from being a heavy weight, my Palm z22 became my most used device, even though it didn't even have Internet or wireless access.
posted by jb at 10:28 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I wish I had spent all that money on Apple stock instead of Palm devices. Ah well, hindsight.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:30 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Related: The Newtonians: Worldwide Cult Keeps Apple’s Distant Past Alive (my alternate title, as there isn't any mention of this "cult" of folks "ditching iPhones").

And I think the reference to the Newton Museum is actually a virtual museum, not somewhere with hours and tours and docents.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:37 AM on August 5, 2013


> I still wish my iPhone could read handwriting, instead of forcing me to type on tiny little keys.

Handwriting recognition has been a component in OS X for most of its lifespan (maybe all of it). Plug a Wacom keyboard into a Mac and a new app called Inkwell is suddenly available. It's the current implementation of the Newton's handwriting recognition.

So hypothetically handwriting rec could become a feature in iOS. No idea why it isn't; I half wonder whether it's because nobody at Apple feels arsed to add it, and half wonder whether it's available on the Mac at all purely to protect Apple's intellectual property on it under the pretext that it's not abandonware.
posted by ardgedee at 10:40 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eat up Martha.
posted by angerbot at 10:42 AM on August 5, 2013


These days Siri occupies the same role of almost kind of mostly translating your input into computer text.
posted by Artw at 10:43 AM on August 5, 2013


By the mid-2000s, the handwriting recognition on the Palm was pretty good.

It was still WAY slower than typing, even on a little virtual thumb keyboard.
posted by jb at 10:44 AM on August 5, 2013


Doonesbury had it.
posted by Melismata at 10:57 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I still wish my iPhone could read handwriting, instead of forcing me to type on tiny little keys.

Your iPhone has chosen instead to get really quite good at understanding what you say.

(The downside of course is that if you say something like "pressure cooker bomb" or "corporate agenda" near it, you can count on a visit from a helpful policeman.)
posted by Naberius at 10:58 AM on August 5, 2013


(I had a MessagePad 100. It sucked ...)

bonaldi comments on Soup storage. While I understand why bonaldi rags on the iOS sandbox model, I'm afraid it was inevitable in a world of (a) always-connected internet, (b) malware, and (c) 100 million devices sold/year. Trying to retrofit security onto an open-to-all-apps storage paradigm like soup would have been a total nightmare. The iOS security model assumes black hats are going to try to attack your phone, which is (a) valuable, (b) probably incorporates the ability to send real money to people, and (c) you don't understand. Hence the lock-down approach. Back in 1993, pre-public internet, pre-web, this wasn't such a big deal ...
posted by cstross at 11:03 AM on August 5, 2013


The other thing is, as much as people rail on the iPhone keyboard... I can type at like 60-80wpm on it if I'm not also having to construct the sentences in real time in my brain while I'm doing it(IE: I'm just blasting out something I'd already thought out, or copying something down from internal memory). I had several palms as a kid in the 90s, and always hated the handwriting recognition. Even when it got fairly reliable it was still slow and inconsistent.

What it needed, which seemingly wasn't possible at the time with the CPU power, storage, and software available was something like the iPhones autocorrect+prediction algorithms(which are absolutely magic, and the best out there). The thing is a lot of these devices had 8mb or less, or even kilobytes of storage and minuscule ram. The fact they even managed to do what they did is about as amazing as the original Macintosh running on floppies and have 128-512kb of ram.

In the end though, every PDA wanted to be the iPod touch in concept. That existing at all almost seems like a callback to the newton, as its basically the ultimate newton.

The number one thing these devices were missing during their existence was real Internet. Some of them like the palm vii had super limited Internet like cellphones used to have(and honestly, no phone had a real browser until after the iPhone. None of them), but actual connectivity and the ability to get outside the device in a not super limited way was always missing. They were bordering on thin clients with no network.

My iiic ended up languishing in its dock until the battery went bad simply because of that. I just nearly unconsciously decided that I'd rather be stuck at a desk staring at a CRT(or a terrible, washed out laptop display) than sitting somewhere nice with the palm simply because it was so limited, and I feel like the newton suffered from the exact same curse there.
posted by emptythought at 11:07 AM on August 5, 2013


There's a chunk of Newton that still hasn't been achieved by any other platform. I particularly liked the way data was available across apps (via the "soups" storage method) so that any address book could update contacts, the calendar app could read notes and so on.

You could do this on Palm OS too.
posted by grouse at 11:08 AM on August 5, 2013


> Doonesbury had it.

It had Doonesbury, too.
posted by ardgedee at 11:11 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hope Google Glass is this decade's Newton. That kind of thing is probably inevitable, but maybe a significant failure could put it off for a few more years.
posted by straight at 11:18 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The fact that the "In Popular Culture" Wikipedia section for the Newton references The Simpsons, Doonesbury, Under Siege 2, and Dilbert doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the Newton, but it does tell you a lot.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:31 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The number one requirement was that it had to fit in John Sculley’s pocket"
"“We joked about sneaking into Sculley’s house and sewing bigger pockets into everything”

Not entirely a joke: you did indeed need a pretty roomy pocket to hold a Newton. It was hand-sized only for fairly large values of hand. And what the article doesn't really mention is that the Newton was heavy; you could fit it in a (big) pocket but it'd pull your jacket lopsided and swing against you as you walked.

Apple seems to keep support documents archived forever -- here's one on replacing the Newton batteries. I remember the manual did have that dire warning about not exhausting both the main and backup batteries.

Mostly I remember Newton as a not-very-good replacement for a paper notepad. The recognition was slow and inaccurate enough that writing notes was painful. (You could run it in a deferred mode in which the recognition would lag behind your writing, but then you'd spend half your time going back to correct its guesses.) The freehand drawing was fun -- it would automatically recognize and straighten lines, boxes, circles -- but again its competition was paper and pencil.

Newton Assistant seems very much ahead of its time now. (I remember the "dial" thing: you could have it play a phone number as DTMF tones through its tiny speaker. Which again was fun the first few times but in practice more fiddly and timeconsuming than simply punching the buttons myself.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:32 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had a Newton (200 model, I believe) that I acquired pretty cheaply second hand and it was a novel and interesting device, but I wasn't the target demographic at all. I was a programmer with a non travelling and non-busy schedule. It was fun to tinker with and by many counts it was ahead of its time.
posted by dgran at 11:42 AM on August 5, 2013


... the iPhones autocorrect+prediction algorithms (which are absolutely magic, and the best out there)

Damn You, Alto cucumbers!
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:56 PM on August 5, 2013


Well, it was the 1990s. Pockets, and pants, were pretty roomy then.
posted by entropone at 12:57 PM on August 5, 2013


Seriously, ever since they reduced the product line to just the fig, strawberry and raspberry varieties Newtons just haven't been the same.
posted by snottydick at 1:14 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seriously, ever since they reduced the product line to just the fig, strawberry and raspberry varieties Newtons just haven't been the same.

There is only fig. All others are abominations unworthy of the name Newton.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:19 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is only fig. All others are abominations unworthy of the name Newton.

iOS vs Android has nothing on this holy war, guys. I'm staying out of it.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:21 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]





Seriously, ever since they reduced the product line to just the fig, strawberry and raspberry varieties Newtons just haven't been the same.

Fig Newmans are awesome.
posted by mikelieman at 1:40 PM on August 5, 2013


I was at the first, last, and only Newton Developers' Conference. Some of the attendees actually had Newtons, but pretty much no one was using them. I may still have the t-shirt somewhere, which, if I hadn't worn and shrunk, would probably be worth more than my Newton would be, if I still had it.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:45 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Of course, the real use of a palm was playing a video game (in my case: space trader) while on the toilet.

I always forget that the Newton was so many years earlier than the Palm; in my mental history they are from the same era and the Apple device failed due to being too ambitious compared to the Palm. But with 3 years separating them that's obviously not the story.
posted by jepler at 2:53 PM on August 5, 2013


I particularly liked the way data was available across apps (via the "soups" storage method) so that any address book could update contacts, the calendar app could read notes and so on.

Like on an Android device?
posted by robertc at 2:53 PM on August 5, 2013


There's some crazy stuff going on in this thread. First of all, reduced the Newton line to fig, strawberry, and raspberry? That's two more Newtons than needed.

Second, in the 90s many of us wore snug dickies, not the capacious trousers alluded to by entropone.
posted by Mister_A at 3:10 PM on August 5, 2013


Pockets were roomier in the 90s, but some people went to extreme measures:
MacUser, September 1994
-----------------------
* HOLSTER THAT NEWTON
Andy Ihnatko in his column that starts
on page 21 has an interesting idea on the "best" way to
carry your Newton. You can order a tactical holster for
automatic weapons from Michaels of Oregon (503.255.6890).
The complete plans are in a file called EASTWOOD.SIT that
can be found on ZiffNet/Mac. Andy recommends the Set No.
9927-1, Size 27 which is $69.95 plus shipping and handling.
Why can I remember an Andy Ihnatko column from nearly 19 years ago but I can't remember my work phone number half the time? Sigh.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:36 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


... but I can't remember my work phone number half the time? Sigh.

What you need, sir, is some sort of portable "personal assistant" device to help you with such mundane tasks!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:38 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like on an Android device?

No, not really, although I can see why you'd think so from the description. The Newton didn't have a file system in the way Android does -- soups were used instead.

A soup stored a certain type of thing, regardless of its creator app, and any app could read any soup that contained things it could read. Soups could also span physical devices -- if part of a soup was on a card and you removed that card, the relevant items would just disappear from their apps.

It and NewtonScript were both pretty neat. But as cstross rightly says, it would be an impossible security nightmare today to follow the Newton model.
posted by bonaldi at 4:49 PM on August 5, 2013


Doonesbury had it.

It had Doonesbury, too.

Am I missing something that you're adding here? Three entire paragraphs of the article are devoted to the Doonesbury thing.
posted by dmd at 6:54 PM on August 5, 2013


I still have a working eMate and a Newton 2000 (boosted to a 2100) and like a giant dork was still using the MP in public* as late as ~2004 until someone's grandmother asked me to run a price check on a can of soup while I was looking up my shopping list at a grocery store. The eMate in particular is a great device to write on because it pretty much can't do anything else, no distractions just a click away.

*I still use it but it no longer leaves the house.
posted by jamaro at 11:36 PM on August 5, 2013


Around the same time there was also General Magic, which in many ways was more prophetic than the Newton. (the linked article is from 1994)
posted by empath at 1:03 AM on August 6, 2013


Wow, reading that general magic article just kept blowing my mind. They had pretty much mapped out everything modern smartphones would do. Down to push notifications, Siri-like contextual if-then adding stuff to the calendar, etc. It also still makes me smirk that it took apple, who were probably filing all this stuff away in their Disney vault, to actually come back around and give the whole thing a kick in the ass and make it really work.

It really makes me wonder though, who is out there right now huffing and puffing away at their own idea like this that the technology just can't carry. But that will be a mainstream product 17-20 years later. All I can really think of is robots, or maybe self driving cars.

Ill just never forget being a kid in the mid-late 90s and thinking about all the same things general magic was. But more in the sense of "why isn't there a computer the size of a gameboy that can do basically everything my clunky desktop can?". Watching it actually happen made me realize how kids growing up in the 70s and watching personal computers take off must have felt. It was a real monkey in to human thing with how the phones and PDAs evolved, then merged in to awkward fish crawling onto land messes, then started to really get up and stumble and walk.

But really though, to be able to sit down when cell phones were still 2 inches thick(I still remember my dads microtac) and laptops were grey bricks, and the closest thing to their concept was the brick-like heavy newton that didnt even do much and go "this is what this thing should look like, and this is how it will work" and nail it so completely is like... Someone came back in a time machine and showed them kinds of amazing.

It's like the guy inventing one of the first cars predicting interstates, and public transit systems, and all the different varieties and sizes and uses of cars, along with seatbelts and how all the controls would be laid out. And even throwing in a radio. The amount of spot on forward thinking there just flabbergasts me.
posted by emptythought at 3:20 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It really makes me wonder though, who is out there right now huffing and puffing away at their own idea like this that the technology just can't carry. But that will be a mainstream product 17-20 years later.

Google has a couple of these: Glass, Self-driving cars.
posted by empath at 4:22 AM on August 6, 2013


emptythought: that 70s kid would be me. I remember ranting at a friend, circa 1990, about how I would kill for a certain device that didn't then exist ... these days you can buy them for $50 in Staples (and pay through the nose for ink cartridges): the multi-function copier.
posted by cstross at 5:43 AM on August 6, 2013


It's really not that hard to predict future technology, only hard to implement it. Almost every feature that is going to be created for Google Glass and Oculus Rift is brain-dead obvious, for example. People have been imagining stuff to do with VR and AR for years and years already. The hard part is going to be making it work.
posted by empath at 6:01 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Newton was actually pretty fantastic, and totally unlike anything else on the market. There WERE electronic PDAs, but nothing that connected back to your desktop, so they were of limited use. The first Newts had a desktop tool, even on Windows, that gave you access to your calendar, contacts, and notes. And this is BEFORE Palm made all that noise about being the connected organizer.

Weirdly, when connectivity was becoming more, not less, important, the Newton 2.0 OS and companion desktop tools *removed* the sync features; at that point, you could only back up your Newton to your PC. There was no way to access your data except on the Newton, at least in the Windows world.

The other weird move was the size bump: an MP2000/2100 was nontrivially bigger than the MP130 had been. At the same time, Palm had introduced a lower power, highly sync-able, very pocket-able device, and that changed the game.

But it's a mistake to remember the Newton as a failure. So much of what it did was way, way ahead of its time. The Palm was like a small, dumb Newton, even in the interface. That same presentation lives on today in the iPhone.

Now, the handwriting recognition in the 1.x Newts did have some issues, but that gave rise to Graffiti (which you may recall was the default input method for Palms later). Newton 2.x changed the HWR so much and so well that Graffiti stopped being required, however -- "Eat up Martha" notwithstanding. With my MP2000, I could actually take notes in meetings quite easily (which I'd then have to email to myself). When I switched to Palm to get easier connectivity, the smaller form factor kept me from doing the same thing.

Oh well. I still have two Newts: a MP110, and an MP2000. I power them up from time to time, just for fun. I even have a web server installed on the MP2000, believe it or not.
posted by uberchet at 6:57 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Filthy light thief, your full week of strips link doesn't work. Boo.
posted by Melismata at 9:06 AM on August 6, 2013


Sorry, let's try again.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:30 AM on August 6, 2013


Thank you! Doonesbury lover
posted by Melismata at 10:43 AM on August 6, 2013


Hah, in one of those he's talking on a MicroTAC. Ill never forget the weird beveled shape of those things.
posted by emptythought at 1:17 PM on August 6, 2013


I had one, and as much of a dog as it was, I'll never forget the thrill of being able to send America Online messages using the 300 baud modem physically plugged into a land line.

I felt like I was living in the future.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:47 PM on August 6, 2013


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