back to article Before the iPad, there was the Newton

If any old-tech devotees are more rabid than Amiga amigos, the Newtonians are. So, for those lovers of Apple's pioneering handheld, here's an up-close-and-personal visual caressing of the Newton MessagePad 120, circa 1995. Newton MessagePad 120 - logo The MessagePad 120 had the longest lifespan of any device based on Apple' …


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  1. Pasi Makinen

    Lobotomized Newton

    One quirk of the MessagePad hardware was that the firmware is stored in a memory needing backup battery. I still have a MessagePad 2100 that got bricked after both the main batteries and backup got depleted.

    If anyone knows how to revive the MessagePad from such state, I'd be keen to have some nostalgic moments.

    1. GENGHIS7777

      Lobotomized Newton

      Take the batteries out leave it overnight. Try doing a hard reset or a brainwipe. This has happened to me a couple of times but my trusty Newt has always returned to life. Your data should also be preserved. You might try taking your battery out and just have it plugged into the AC adapter.

      Also search the archive for more tips.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Lobotomized Newton

      You will have a lot more fun if you take it to the nearest body of water and see how many times you can skip it. I bet it beats a brick.

  2. David Biggins


    I'm fairly certain the Z8503008 is a Z85C3008 two-channel serial controller. In Zilog coding this is an 8MHz Z85C30; there is also a 16MHz part Z85C3016.

  3. Anonymous Coward


    He he! I still have mine up in the spare room somewhere. It still works. OK, it still switches on and the stylus still writes, as for working, well it never really did work that well.

  4. Christian Berger

    In a way this was _far_ more advanced than the iPhone/iPad

    Back then, they actually thought about making a pen-based users interface. For example as far as I have seen, you could just write a name anywhere and select it to get the address of the person behind it. It actually tried to do more with the computer than just emulating physical devices.

  5. Jamie Craig

    Zilog chip

    That unknown chip turns out to be a serial communications controller - I think basically apple's usual posh variation on the theme of a UART to handle the localtalk port (and maybe the infra-red too).

    The datasheet for it is here:

    albeit that site is miserably slow.

    I'll get my too-geeky-to-live coat.

  6. Bob H


    Not quite sure from the first page, but did that model come with 2.0?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    PenPad anyone???

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Ah, Amstrad Penpad

      I had one, cost £30 in the mid-nineties from a computer auction in Cheptsow... As a teenager, I didn't have much use for it, the sketching was quite fun. I was impressed by the rubber-on-abs coating, though - felt expensive. It wasn't a Newton, though.

      Our school's head of IT had placed much emphasis on databases and Hypercard and the like, and had shown us many videos by blue-sky silicon valley types about PDAs, physical metaphors and future operating systems, so I aware of what the Newton was. Of course, at this time the net had yet to go mainstream.

      An eMate 300 did show up briefly in the our Design and Tech workshop (Metalshop) but no-one could find a use for it! I was reminded of it when the first of Jon Ive's 'bubbletech' designs such as the iMac and iBook appeared.

      Sorry, got all nostalgic then

    2. Jon Axtell

      My first job

      My first job was working on the Amstrad PenPad software at Eden Group in Macclesfield. Great times.

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Apple loved the Zilog SCC

    Versions of it shipped in the original Macs onwards. *Lots* of flexibility, supports plenty of modes and protocols. A Byte interview in 1984 (from the dev team) said basically once you decide to put *a* chip on the board its not *that* much more expensive to have a flexible, fast, processor offloading smart serial comms chip as some cheapo (but bandwidth hogging) dumb SIO port.

    For all I know versions of it (probably as licensed IP within a custom chip) are running in Apple kit still.

    Yes mine will be the anorak with the SCC datasheet (100+ pages) in the pocket.

  9. Chris Miller

    June 1996

    Just as the MP120 disappeared, we saw the launch of the US Robotics (Palm) Pilot - I knpw this date because the diary on my Palm phone starts in July 1996. Owing a massive debt to its chunky predecessor, it had three huge advantages:

    [1] Form factor - it would slip into a shirt pocket. The real test of a PDA is: "have you got it with you, right now?" - the Newton was too bulky and heavy to pass this test, more like a modern netbook or iPad.

    [2] Handwriting recognition - Newton's system was a great idea, but neither the software nor the processing power were up to the job. Effective handwriting recognition remains a significant challenge for today's PCs. Palm selected Graffiti, which isn't true handwriting recognition since it requires the use of stylised forms for letters, but minimised the processor requirements.

    [3] Simple, out-of-the-box synchronisation with Windows - so that losing your PDA was no longer a world-ending event like losing your Filofax, and content changes made on your Pilot were reflected on your PC (and vice versa).

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Palm's Graffiti

      Ah yes, somebody had sense.

      Given the choice, do you go with attempting to train a sclerotic ARM processor with some learning software to recognise handwriting or training a mega-puissant, biological, neural-net supercomputer designed to learn shit to use the gestures the device recognises?

      Palm correctly spotted where the serious processing horsepower was and used that.

      1. mafoo
        Jobs Horns


        There was a graffiti extension for the newton. I know, i had it on my MP2k ^^

    2. GENGHIS7777

      The Palm

      [2] Handwriting recognition - Newton's system was a great idea, but neither the software nor the processing power were up to the job. Effective handwriting recognition remains a significant challenge for today's PCs. Palm selected Graffiti, which isn't true handwriting recognition since it requires the use of stylised forms for letters, but minimised the processor requirements.


      [3] Simple, out-of-the-box synchronisation with Windows - so that losing your PDA was no longer a world-ending event like losing your Filofax, and content changes made on your Pilot were reflected on your PC (and vice versa).


  10. lpopman

    titular announcement


    As an Amiga user, I resent being called an Amigo. Some (most?) of us prefer being called Amigans. Stop trolling the commentards, please :)

  11. Andrew Garrard
    Jobs Horns

    Happy memories

    Ah, I had fun with my MP120. It did wonders to improve my handwriting (if you can write so it can recognise it, other people can read it too). Unfortunately, even with the OS upgrade, it was never really fast enough to keep up with a useful writing speed - I was deeply tempted by a StrongARM Newton, which I'm sure were better, but they were even bulkier and always very expensive, so I went to the dark side and got a Palm (if you don't do proper handwriting recognition, you don't need a screen that you can write whole words on, and the device fits in a pocket). Oh, I had a Newton Keyboard, which was a very nice thing to type on - but it was bigger than the Newton and could only keep up with the rate at which the Newton can handle letter entry, which is quite a bit slower than I can type... curse you, under-powered processor. I still think the newer generations were getting interesting when Jobs cancelled them, but then I guess he'd claim he planned the iPad all along.

    I'm still very fond of NewtOS, though. The cut and paste (drag to the edge of the screen) was a nice idiom, as was the scribble-to-delete. The concepts of the OS were quite interesting (and different); I only wish I'd had time to do more with it, but it was always on my "must write something" list.

    It's a shame NewtHack was so unstable, or I might have bought the full version. Otherwise I really didn't use it much, for all I carried it around a lot. I certainly never used the modem, even though I had one.

    I agree about the whining noise. The stylus was very plasticky - I was always worried about breaking it - and it chewed batteries a bit. The little plastic boxes that the rechargable batteries came in were quite handy though - if you want to carry four AA batteries around without leaving them in something (handy for digital cameras, flashes, etc.) The thing I used most, though, was the official leather carry case - in which the Newton rattled about, but a Toshiba Libretto 70CT fits perfectly. I still have it, although I've finally taken to using a mini-note a bit more than the Libretto (even though it's comparatively huge).

    My newt got given to a friend, with instructions to look after it. I wish I actually had a use for it.

    Two things you really ought to mention in any Newton article: That it was the reason ARM was spun out of Acorn (and all us A5000 owners said "you're doing *what* with it? and shortly afterwards "you're making a computer with the same chip you put in the Newton?" when the RiscPC came out), and, obviously more important, Steven Seagal used one in Under Siege 2.

    I probably need to have another play with one. My handwriting's getting illegible again these days.

    1. GENGHIS7777

      MP2x00's solve speed problem

      You wrote: "it was never really fast enough to keep up with a useful writing speed "

      All this was solved with the MP2000 and MP2100 models. You're right bulky but then I carried around a Franklin Day Planner for work, which was of similar size: so no marginal cost there.

  12. Mobius

    'Cremation' app

    Built-in self-destruction ala Q?

  13. Chris_Maresca
    Thumb Up

    still in use a few years ago

    I was at an Audi race track event a couple of years ago, and they were still using Newtons for surveys....

    I used to have a 120, it was a good machine. Then again, I still have a couple of NeXTs....

  14. leon stok
    Paris Hilton

    So I had a look at those icons..

    I've seen a lot of apps, but what is the cremation program ?

    Or is that the only program that is showing the title of the next appointment, while every other program shows its name ? (which would seem very inconsistent application design)

    1. Stevie


      Palm were up front about Graffiti, which according to one Palm presentation I saw back in 1997-ish was an idea originally floated for the Newton and rejected. The Palm Pilot was, according to this story, born out of that rejection of a patently good idea, and at the time of the speech Graffiti was quoted as being the largest selling 3rd party application for the Newton.

      Again, all Palm agitprop from the years of the original Palm Pilot.

      I still use a Handspring Visor, a blue one, though it has suffered one catastrophic collapse that has rendered all my kid's Diddlebug pix unviewable (yes I had a recovery point, no the device didn't properly recover all apps, obviously).

      The idea encapsulated in the Newton device was a good one, just way ahead of its time.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "whose minds had already been made up by the media Scheiße-storm"

    "whose minds had already been made up by the media Scheiße-storm"

    Sounds like the current situation with the iPhone 4...

    1. Paul

      >>Sounds like the current situation with the iPhone 4.

      trying to compare the newton with the iphone4 is stupid.

      the original newton was simply underpowered and its software a bit too rough'n'ready, but they were able to make big strides in improving it through software.

      the iphone 4 was clearly a triumph of marketing/design over basic engineering requirements; I can't have been along in wondering, when apple did the launch presentation, how apple had solved the problem of human body RF absorption... and within weeks it became apparent they hadn't. it was a fundamental flaw in design, and the claims of software fixes are a sop to the fanboys.

      the only commonality is the marketing people who always give people ridiculous expectations.

      1. Sean Timarco Baggaley

        Except all bloody phones have this "problem".

        So it *is* a Scheisse-storm. In a teacup.

        Whipped and stirred by the ignorant tossers in the media—yes BBC's science reporters, I'm looking at you—who apparently believe a 0.55% reception-related technical support rate genuinely implies a "serious flaw" in a product.

        And who also conveniently felt it wasn't worth checking other phones for the same "serious flaw". Turns out Nokia, Motorola, LG, HTC, etc. are just as guilty of bullshit signal (and battery) meters.

        Doesn't mean Apple's got it right—if anything, their software 'fix' merely makes their metering just as worthless as their competitors'—but if you're going to criticise a design team, it'd really help if you criticised them for stuff they've genuinely screwed up on. Like the Apple TV and the multiple fragmented iStores.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          Stop trying to justify your folly by regurgitating to same crap Apple is spouting.

          The Death Grip issue is different from that of the reduced performance due to cupping/cradling the antenna on a mobile which has a concealed antenna.

          Apple, being all about the bling, wanted the phone to look different from other designs we have seen to date. They got it wrong by placing design over functionality.

          Maybe they didn’t. They knew their customers were all about the look and badge, so would buy anything that they think looks good.

          The antenna head honcho told the board that an external antenna design would cause problems, but was ignored.

          The story was released by the iPhone4 users, not the media.

          Everything else (i.e. software, bars, etc) is just sandwich filler.

          Just admit it, your beloved Apple is run by mere humans. Humans who make mistakes, who are arrogant and stubborn when the shite is flung their way.

      2. GENGHIS7777


        You wrote: "the only commonality is the marketing people who always give people ridiculous expectations."

        You're right there. Larry Tesler who headed the Newton group when it released the original Newton was disappointed when the marketing people ignored his recommendation not to focus on handwriting recognition in their promotional material: See where some of the results of the original Newton market research can be found.

  16. kanoop

    Date Code

    The date code on the Z8503 is 9421, which means that the chip was manufactured in week 21 of 1994. This means that your 120 must have been assembled sometime in the second half of 1994.

  17. James 139

    *wipes tear from eye*

    I have an original model.

    Got it "cheap" as it was unboxed and being sold off, I guess as ex-demo or something.

    Back in 97 or 98 it was a great fun device, if a bit quirky at recognizing handwriting.

    Soon abandoned that in favour of just reading my own scribbles, worked so much better.

    One thing I did love was deleting a note page, where it screwed it up into a ball and made it go "poof".

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I'll stick with my Psion, thanks.

  19. joshimitsu

    I want to know...

    Will it blend?

  20. Graham 25
    Thumb Up

    Under Siege 2

    Didn't Steven Seagal us a Newton to save the day by dialing a fax machine and sending an important message ? None of my messages were that important but when mine finally died, it did spur me to buy a Palm V which I had until a few years ago.

    I seem to recall that I never did get around to telling the Mrs how much I paid for ir, but I can remember buying it from an Apple reseller on the Bayswater Road.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not so down on the eMate

    Sadly my 2100 is no more, but I was surprised to find the eMate still booted. And it's a clever piece of kit that could have gone places with a little more time and effort on Apple's part. Think about it, a computer designed for kids - a tough polycarbonate case that can survive being dropped, a carry handle, completely solid state, easy to use software, and able to share resources over a network - hmmmm sounds awfully like the OLPC XO-1.

  22. Jolyon

    OMG! OMP!

    Still got my OMP in the spare room - it really couldn't cope with my handwriting so it never got the used it deserved but I loved some of the pen interface ideas - same depth of thinking as the iPod Touch shows.

    If anyone makes my ideal ebook device it'd have a lot of that in it for note-taking.

    We'd had the Psion 5mx on the Reg, not the Newton so my vote for the next handheld hero of yore would be TapWave's excellent Zodiac.

  23. Jeremy P

    That first false dawn

    As it happens, I went to visit Apple on a fact-finding mission as the Newton team was being disbanded, and interviewed leading players. I was looking at different systems; the focus wasn't Newton but General Magic's "Magic Cap." We looked at a number of other systems too, focusing on PDA and mobile media technologies.

    Magic Cap pioneered the approach that Apple used with iPhone - building a community of network operators. It showed promise, but it was seriously flawed, and the dead hand of operator control had the inevitable result.

    At that time, Microsoft's abysmal WinCE was both confident and victorious. It was puny, unimaginative and annoying but it leveraged Windows and Office. But it always looked like the past, not the future. It wasn't good, it wasn't loveable, it was just there. Newton had the glimmers of loveability, but the tech was flawed and Apple just didn't _get_ networking.

    I love the way that Apple has re-invigorated the smartphone world. To me, iPhone and Android look like today - they capture the best of what was already forming all those years back. But I'm still waiting for something that looks like tomorrow, and I have a suspicion that neither Apple nor Google has the vision for the jump from lean and useable touch OS to something truly new.

  24. Paul

    einstein - newton emulator

    don't have a Newton? no worry, you can emulate it - people have done this on the sharp zaurus and nokia tablets amongst other things

  25. Stu
    Thumb Up

    HP 320LX rival!?

    Great article, I never even held a Newton myself. Can't really say I ever pined for one either.

    Sorry for bringing up an equivalent much criticised (the OS at least) rival, but the Hewlett Packard 320LX was a very early Windows Mobile device that I owned around the same time as the Newton was around. Extremely well built, clamshell design, very small, I would say smaller than the Newton but I can't be sure based on the photos - it looks chunkier!

    I always recall that the Newtons were most certainly devices aimed at the serious business PDAer, confirmed because of how expensive they were! My HP320LX was a lot cheaper I seem to recall.

    Oddly enough the same thread of OS is still in operation today, in WM6.5!! Although they were split between professional and standard versions, and between horizontal keyboard equipped devices and vertical 'pocket PC' devices. I think it had Windows CE v1.0 in it, but I did order the OS upgrade ROM kit to v2 (or something) but it didn't change anything significantly!

    At their heart from the very early days, right the way thru to 6.5 is an OS that simply takes most or all of the same visual elements as the full-fat Windows and plonks them uninteligently into a mobile device, wholely unsuited for it! 6.5 devices today only look different because they are substituted with UI elements added by the third party device manufacturer, HTC TouchFlo for instance.

    It had a 640x240 display, which made it look really high-res for a mobile device.

    I stuck with CE devices for years after owning that, mainly because of the amount of freebie software appearing (dotted around because of the lack of an AppStore equivalent) for the OS. At one point owning the rival 'i' device, the Compaq iPaq, then stuck with the same OS and form factor when HTC started building them into mobile phones, specifically the earlier HTC PDA brick like devices. PDAs and mob phones mixed really well I thought, the merging was a no-brainer.

    Oh the early days of half arsed designed mobile computing, what memories!

    1. GENGHIS7777


      Ironically, I had a HP200LX and shifted to a Newton: see But I found that I was using the Newton up to 5-6 hours a day compared to about half an hour a day with the Palmtop.

      I still use the HP200LX whenever I need a calculator.

  26. Douglas Smith

    There are fixes for the Year 2010 problem out there

    and quite an active NewtonTalk mailing list too

    ( OK so my 120 is currently doing sterling service as a paperweight )

  27. LinkOfHyrule
    Thumb Up

    Very Interesting read!

    Thanks, very interesting article! I love reading about the history of computing.

    I like the pictures showing the lower tolerances in the plastic moulding. These days you only seem see stuff like that on cheap usb hubs brought from the poundshop!

  28. MrT

    Did this ever really drop off the radar?

    Think about it - was the concept not so much overtaken by a hype storm as much as the advent of 'media rich' experiences - hence the swing towards full colour devices that can deal with movies, music, email, Internet etc.

    By the time the technology supporting the Newton caught up with the concept, people were becoming used to a different package. Let's play '1998 what-if'... if the mobile networks were up to speed, if cellphone technology was able to support high data rates, if storage and processing advances had been made, then this device would not have died but evolved.

    It's a different story for the Psion 5 (I own two of them and used to go online via infrared to a Motorola T250), but the features that people wanted and used on Newton and Psion are still in demand today. Just a load of 'media rich' marketing clouding the view.

    Interesting that device design is moving away from pen and keyboard to touch-screen, voice activation and gesture control. Most people here seem to view Newton and Psion 5 as designs that ran out of development space/time/cash.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    iphone 4? At least the Newton was a new concept.

    In 1997 I spent a brief time at a company that reconditioned these things.

    We used to do the MP120 & MP130 (the one with the backlight).

    Each day I would bring one of the parts home and save it in a box, until I had all the bits and I built my own one.

    When I had been there a few months we got the *new* model with the side flip lid (was that the MP2000?) and the eMate. I was given the job of pulling them apart and documenting the strip procedures for the other guys who worked there.

    I really wanted one of the new MP's and was gutted that I had spent so long collecting the parts for the 130.

    Still, it lasted a good 8 years until I got a smartphone, but I have never come across a device that can recognise my handwriting so well.

  30. FARfetched

    Ah, memories

    I got an OMP when some mail-order reseller was closing them out for cheap. IMO, the original Newton was trashed unfairly — the instructions clearly said you had to train it to recognize your handwriting and they were right. It took two weeks, but it was like flipping a switch — one moment it was getting about 80% right, the next it was at least 95%.

    But when I first got it, I was showing it off to my wife. I wrote her name — Margaret — on the pad and it changed it to "Argues." Damn, the thing was smart, it took one look at her and knew her!

    Oh, and the thing still works (although it does have the aforementioned Y2K issue).

    Mine's the one with the jumbo packs of AAA batteries in the pockets.

  31. Bad Beaver
    Thumb Up

    Keep the green!

    Ahh, sweet Newton bliss. My first one actually was a 130 and I still have two 2100s around. Both of which still work despite me lugging them around for years, having them squeezed, twisted, and repeatedly tumbled down whole lecture theatres. Superbly sturdy and very ergonomic hardware. So what if they are not as slick as todays devices? The bugly eMate could be thrown against the wall and would still work. Being designed for EDU, it just had to be that robust.

    As Christian wrote, Newton OS provided a truly innovative interface with excellent pen-implementation. It often mimicked physical office-equipment in both look and also operation while adding incredibly useful features that are amiss in many of today's devices.

  32. ForthIsNotDead

    Can I be the first to say...

    Psion Series 5

    I'll get me coat (the one with a Psion Series 5 in the pocket).

    Woops, sorry, I said it again!

  33. The Splund
    Thumb Up

    Ahead of its time

    I have a MessagePad 110 running 1.3 which still works. This article inspired me to get it out, dust it off and fire it up. Interestingly, it doesn't suffer from the 2010 problem mentioned. It's also been sitting in a box for years with no batteries inserted, but fired straight up when plugged into the mains.

    The Newton was way ahead of its time. It needed a faster processor and better power consumption and it would have been great. As it was, it was useful to me until I filled it with data and finding something got waaayy too slow (like a minute to search for an address or note).

    Nice article. Interesting piece of nostalgia. Still have the packaging for mine, complete with back-of-box blurb touting the 2400 baud modem :-)

  34. GENGHIS7777

    Y2010 bug: You can get many more years of use out of your Newton yet

    You wrote: "Note, by the way, that the date on my MessagePad 120 is July 2001. The poor old thing can't handle 2010, and pops back to 1976 when you try to bring its time and date settings into the present. Sigh..."

    You have the Y2010 bug which can be fixed by applying Avi's Fix2010 patch. You can get it from here:

    You can read up on this bug here: The bug only effects NOS 2.x devices. Avi's Fix works for NOS 2.0 and Eckhart Koppen's patch works for NOS 2.1 devices.

    See for more how-to guides..

  35. Ed Deckard

    Whatever happened to "This Old Box"?

    Bring it back!

    Nice article btw.

  36. stu 4


    He he... at last someone mentions old PDAs!

    I have a display cabinet full of my old ones - and I still collect the odd good un.

    I've got an OMP in there, Palm Pilot (yup.. before the lawsuit/rename), penpad*, etc.

    can you identify the others ?

    There have been a few more additions since then - a zaurus, a few windows PDA/phones, psion 5, etc.

    *that expensive coating turns to glue - the whole case of the amstrad is now like one of those sticky octopuses you throw at windows.

  37. DIGITALUnderworld

    Got both...

    I still have my Apple Newton in the original packaging. They are very similar, but the color is nice.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Gates Halo

    No Sale

    I remember working for a company back in the mid 90's, we were looking at a solution and the Newton seemed to be ideal.

    We needed 450 Newtons and contacted 4 Apple dealers but alas no response back from any of them (maybe they thought we were crazy?!?!).

    We ended up going the PC route , thanks Bill

  39. This post has been deleted by its author

  40. Anonymous Coward

    back in the day

    Back in the day when this was new it was NOT good, it was a piece of crap FAIL.

  41. James Dore
    Jobs Halo

    Sigh. Still no better note-taker.

    I had an MP120, which I bought in 1997. It got signed by Douglas Adams, but I was a tool, and never covered, or replaced, the flip cover that he signed, so it wore off. Bah. Anyway, I then got an MP2k, which was awesome, and which still works, even on Wifi. There isn't anything electronic that yet comes close to it for taking notes, even the iPad; the resistive and slightly textured screen on the MessagePads is great for writing on, and very robust for poking with the stylus.

    Anyone know of any good styli for the iPad? And if Inkwell (Ghost of Newton, which lives on in Mac OS X, and is summoned if you connect a graphics tablet) got ported and hidden?

  42. DZ-Jay

    Why it was killed

    When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, Newton-based devices were one of the first things to go, and quickly. There, of course, are the notions that the company had already invested over $2bn USD on the notorious devices, and that they were just a money hole.

    However, this cannot be necessarily the reason for their cancellation, for as this article states, by the second iteration the devices were much more capable and actually selling quite good. Apple was on track to recuperate its investment, yet the product was discontinued nonetheless.

    According to some well known Apple people who were there (but whose names escape me at this time), Steve Jobs canceled the product expediently for very personal reasons. You see, the Newton project was spearheaded by Jean-Louis Gasset (and, I believe John Sculley too, at some time), whom was a prominent player in the original drama that found Steve Jobs ousted from his own company back in the Eighties.


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