back to article Stylus counsel: The rise and fall of the Apple Newton MessagePad

It will forever be remembered as the butt of a-thousand-and-one jokes about its poor handwriting recognition, but Apple’s MessagePad was bold in its conception. Its legacy is ARM’s conquest of the mobile microprocessor world. The company said on 8 August 1993: The Newton MessagePad is the first in a family of communications …


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  1. Tom 7

    It just didnt quite fit in your pocket

    A friend had one (second hand a few years old) and it seemed to do most things he wanted and he was happy with it but it lived in his briefcase.

    I still think anyone who can put 4 cores and a larger screen* into a Psion5 clamshell is onto a winner.

    * a modern two part screen should be possible one slides out from behind the other as needed.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It just didnt quite fit in your pocket

      ... unless you bought clothing from the ranges of "Apple Newton" endorsed items - advertising tag line "just like normal clothes but bigger pockets" - that was announced by one of the Apple magazines .... in their April 1st edition!

    2. Xyra

      Re: It just didnt quite fit in your pocket

      Much like a small netbook. Or even a transformer tablet?

    3. Shonko Kid

      Re: It just didnt quite fit in your pocket

      "I still think anyone who can put 4 cores and a larger screen* into a Psion5 clamshell is onto a winner."

      To be honest, even just getting having the Psion 5 with modern networking options (Wifi/BT/3G) would be a winner. Who needs to fap on about screen size and number of CPU cores?

  2. Ivan Headache


    A colleague of mine won a Newton at the Apple launch event at Olympia.

    The following day at work we all (naturally) had a play with it, writing our names (and various rude phrases).

    Most names and phrases were interpreted quite well (apart from some of the rude bits, but one chap (I'll have to use his real name) called Nick O'Brian had his name interpreted as "Slick O Berlin"

    And from then on that's what we all called him.

    I got to use an eMate for a while and I must say I really liked it. We were able to connect it to both macs and pcs and the software was really quite clever. I don't remember what happened to it though.

    1. captain veg Silver badge

      Re: Handwriting

      A colleague once told me that I had missed a call from someone named "my gonads". Took a while to work out that the caller was actually "Mike Gomez", but we never used his real name again.


    2. DaneB

      Re: Handwriting

      The emate was an ideal machine for schools - and business on the go really. Aren't they collector's items now?

  3. Richard Wharram

    Eat Up Martha


    1. Indolent Wretch

      Re: Eat Up Martha

      "Beat up Martin"

  4. Justin Stringfellow
    Thumb Down

    I've got one in brand new condition

    Bought it in 1996. It was so unusably crap I chucked it in the loft after a couple of weeks trying to make sense of it. It's still there, and works - I fired it up a couple of years ago, and it's still junk, even with the rose tinted specs on.

    1. Ted Treen

      Re: I've got one in brand new condition

      Ever thought about trying before buying?

      1. Justin Stringfellow

        Re: I've got one in brand new condition

        Yep but it was super cheap, so I took a risk.

        First and last time I fell for Apple hype.

        1. returnmyjedi

          Just you wait until you see the iphone 5S. It's maaagical.

        2. magnetik

          Re: I've got one in brand new condition

          So you've shunned an entire brand for decades based on your short experience with one of their least successful products ever?

    2. Sam Haine

      Re: I've got one in brand new condition

      Me too, I bought it for peanuts on eBay out of curiousity. I can see why it failed; it was defeated by the faster, more reliable and more versatile technology of pen and paper.

      1. Professor Clifton Shallot

        Re: I've got one in brand new condition

        "I can see why it failed; it was defeated by the faster, more reliable and more versatile technology of pen and paper."

        That's about right. Although you missed out 'cheaper'.

        The annoying thing is that with a bit more power behind it Newton OS might actually have become 'digital paper' - the nearest thing today is the Samsung Note series and they don't have the same cleverness.

        I loved Newton OS's data soup idea, the smart interpretation of e.g. URLs, and the write-where-you-like and I can't help but wonder if a modern tablet might be able to implement the whole package quite successfully, even for handwriting as Newton-stumpingly poor as mine.

  5. hammarbtyp

    The first PDA

    It was like all PDA's. There was an essence of functionality that made you buy it, but after a while the limitations overwhelmed the functionality

    i remember when everyone had a PDA, but few managed to use them more than a few months. What they really wanted was on the go network connectivity. Until that was offered they did not provide much functionality over pen and paper.

    1. Tufty Squirrel

      Re: The first PDA

      It was (and, to some extent, still is) far more than just a PDA. It was a full computing platform, and while people who haven't used them in earnest (I still have, and use, my MP2100) focus on the handwriting aspect*, there was far more to it than just that.

      - No "filesystem", just a big "soup" of data. You don't need to worry about where their data is stored in some arbitrary hierarchy of devices and folders, or what you've called it, all you ned to know is what you're looking for. There's nothing quite like that, even now.

      - Extreme integration. This lives on, to some extent, in some of Apple's software (for example, highlighting of (fuzzy) dates in enabling you to add items to the calendar, etc, but Newton hooked into everything, even 3rd party apps.

      - Write anywhere. The handwriting recognition might not have been perfect, but it fit perfectly with the form factor of the handheld Newtons. Keyboards worked too, of course, and would have been good for a "desktop" NewtonOS device. MS might be failing with their "one UI fits all" paradigm, but newton had it in the '90s.

      - Expandability. USB, Wifi, Bluetooth, ATA storage cards, all aftermarket "hacks" for the Newton that work very nicely despite the fact they hadn't even been invented when it was released. Quite astounding when you realise the restrictions of the platform.

      - Instant on. Really. Totally instant in most cases. Straight back to where you were when you turned it off. Even if that was weeks, months, or even years ago (in which case you might need to boot from cold, but you lose nothing - try taking the batteries out of your Palm pilot and see where that gets you)

      What really killed it (apart from the price and the heckling) was the fact it was so radically different from other platforms. It was hard to make it work properly with the "status quo". Sure, you could sync it and keep your data safe, but that was about it. Interop with desktop apps other than calendars and address books was hard to do (and is even harder now).

      Newton is probably the closest thing to the perfect computing platform ever invented (eclipsed, possibly, by the Lisp machines). It's a crying shame the rest of the world hasn't managed to catch up.

      * The descendant of the Calligrapher cursive recogniser used by the later Newtons is now, I believe, owned by MS, which is why OSX's "ink" recogniser (OSX 10.2+) only handles printed handwriting.

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. Slik Fandango

    Loved mine

    and what was interesting to me was that I worked closely at the time with MicroSoft...

    Quite a few managers there were early adopters and got their hands on a few.

    They loved them - mainly it seemed because they could beam notepad messages under the table in meetings, so enabling them to play noughts and crosses...

    It worked for me and my needs - addresses, diary, expenses and email (when I could find a phone line).

  8. banjomike

    Not Steve Jobs then...

    So Apple made their first moves towards pocket-sized devices at a time whem Jobs wasn't on the payroll? That will be a nice bit of trivia to drop into conversations at nerd get-togethers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not Steve Jobs then...

      Jobs created the computer that the WWW was written on.

      So in reality Jobs and Apple have done a lot more for this world than Microsoft and Bill Gates have ever done.

      1. banjomike

        Re: Not Steve Jobs then...

        Tim Berners-Lee wrote his system on a Norsk Data NORD-10 running under the Norsk Data OS Sintran III. Where do Apple fit in?

        1. John Wilson

          Re: Not Steve Jobs then...

          ENQUIRE was written on the Norsk. The WWW was developed on NextOS, hence the Apple connection

          1. mmeier

            Re: Not Steve Jobs then...

            The Jobs connection. Next was bought by Apple in 96, by that time they had stopped selling hardware for about three years so no Apple there

            1. ThomH

              Re: Not Steve Jobs then...

              Per Berners-Lee and museums worldwide, the Next was the platform on which the web was developed. That's pretty much settled.

              But why does Jobs get credit for that? If SETI@home finds something then do we need to find out which particular client filtered that bit of data and award Jobs, Gates, Torvalds or whomever with credit for finding extraterrestrial life?

  9. Chris Miller

    It's all about the timing

    The Newton was a great concept, but the hardware wasn't quite advanced enough to make it useful. The USR Pilot made some compromises and worked well. Plus it was small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, meaning you could carry it everywhere.

    1. The First Dave

      Re: It's all about the timing

      @Chris Miller

      No, the Palm Pilot was shit as well, since you had to re-learn how to write. I managed to learn the basic alphabet without much trouble, but never managed more than a handful of punctuation marks and special characters, like = or £

      Honestly, learning morse code was easier and more fun...

  10. returnmyjedi

    A spoilt little oik in my English class had a Newton, and spent nearly double the amount of time taking notes than he would have with a pen and exercise book. The teacher tolerated it for precisely an hour before he banned it for ever (the kid's parents even compared to the head teacher for their little angel not being allowed to use such an expensive "investment" and got laughed out of his office).

  11. stu 4

    yeh anther excuse to post.....

    My PDA collection cabinet pics:

    there's a newton in there somewhere...

    1. Alex Walsh

      Re: yeh anther excuse to post.....

      Got a few of those. I also have a Sony Clie Peg SL10, a Sharp Zaurus SL-5500, a Psion Revo, and one of the first smartphones, a Handspring Treo 300 :D

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: Got a [...] Sharp Zaurus SL-5500

        ... I not only still have my Zaurus, I still use it :-) ... albeit mainly as an alarm clock and a place to take notes at conferences.

    2. nemenator

      Re: yeh anther excuse to post.....

      No Amstrad PDA600? Wasn't that the first PDA? It was sadly ignored because it was British and suspiciously cheap.

    3. Professor Clifton Shallot


      "My PDA collection cabinet pics:"

      Hmm, very impressivce but yet no Tapwave Zodiac, no Oregon Scientific, um, whatever it was called that was credit card sized and surprisingly useful (or is that one on the bottom right?), and no Psion Series 7 / Netbook all of which I think deserve a place in the PDA museum.

  12. Peter Galbavy

    Only Apple product I have ever *or will, knowingly) buy. Was fun. It's in a box along with one I got from a old colleague after he got bored. I think they're the 120's but not sure.

  13. FreeMarketsOnly

    Poor execution

    The Newton was a good concept poorly done--buggy, terribly slow, and too bulky. It was really only a novelty, and a frustrating one at that.

    1. iSadLusa

      Re: Poor execution

      >Poor execution

      >The Newton was a good concept poorly done--buggy, terribly slow, and too bulky. It was really only a novelty,

      >and a frustrating one at that.

      Plus ça change.

      Sent from my iPad.

  14. Stevie


    If they had only okayed Graffiti for use on the Newton it would have had a very different history. I remember seeing one of the first Pilots in '96 and laughing at the idea of having to use a special alphabet. Then I tried it for myself. In less than an hour of learning I could write notes while talking to people, *without looking at the screen while I did so*. Contrast with the time needed to "train" a Newton until it could be said to be reliable.

    1. Daniel B.

      Re: Bah!

      Indeed. Speed-writing on a Graffiti made me "type" faster than on a keyboard and write faster than on paper! However I do remember that the Graffiti used on the original PalmPilot and that on subsequent devices was different, IIRC because of a patent troll? Anyway, it was damn good, and much faster than actual handwriting!

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        Re: Graffiti, my experience

        For me, Palm's Graffiti certainly wasn't faster than typing. (Their problem with someone else's patented design seems to have been a genuine transgression; I believe they paid up, but I don't vouch for it.) On the other hand, I started to write Graffiti on paper documents, it was getting out of hand... At length I tried and learned to love "Fitaly", a highly efficient on-screen keyboard layout that's also available for Windows tablets up to but I think not yet including Metro. I can tap that about half the speed of full-size keyboard touch typing, which is just as well because I can't type any more because of RSI. But with Fitaly I'm okay. A tip for that is to use one hand (with pen) for pointing and another hand (with Bluetooth mouse) for clicking, if you have the right kind of stylus to do things that way.

  15. Stevie


    I've seen several times in these hallowed pages the claim that cellphones were "widely used" in the early 90s and were going digital in a big way by '93.

    As a cell phone user in metropolitan New York, I can say from first hand knowledge that this ain't so. About half the people who could afford to use them had cell phones in '95, all analog, and the coverage map was still pathetic outside of cities no matter who you signed with. There were digital phone offerings by '96, but they were so expensive that only corporate show-offs were using them and the coverage map was even worse than the analog one was.

    At least, that was the case in Manhattan, Long Island and on the Beltway (Maryland side) in this universe. I had to pay roaming charges in Baltimore too, because my AT&T coverage was limited to one city as a home area.

    1. Matt Piechota

      Re: Bah!

      "As a cell phone user in metropolitan New York, I can say from first hand knowledge that this ain't so. About half the people who could afford to use them had cell phones in '95, all analog, and the coverage map was still pathetic outside of cities no matter who you signed with. There were digital phone offerings by '96, but they were so expensive that only corporate show-offs were using them and the coverage map was even worse than the analog one was."

      Just to reinforce, yeah that sounds right. In Western New York (Buffalo), I had an analog phone in 1997 (and it drew stares, especially on my college campus). Other than a handful of people no one had them. It was a motorola with a 10-digit 7-segment LED display. The next year I had a Sprint PCS phone (1998, for sure) which was a wonder. Phone book dialing, text on a 30x4 character LCD screen, and you could send it email and it would show up as text! I'd imagine you could text message with it in some fashion, but no one else had one so that was rather useless.

      1. ThomH

        Re: Bah!

        Further to the anecdotes: when I collected my A-Level results in 1999, from my well-to-do upper-middle-class school, exactly four people out of about a hundred had mobile phones which were passed around widely for phoning parents, and only one of those was actually the property of the student.

        Starting university later that year, almost everybody ended up getting one within a term or two. They were cheaper than the halls' pay phone besides anything else.

    2. Yossarian

      Re: Bah!

      I guess this is one of the few instances where America was well behind us Europeans.

      From a poor northern English background (think mining village with reasonable unemployment) I remember seeing mobile phones starting around 92 or 93, my low level sales guy dad got given an analogue one by the company in 94 and had a digital one in 95. These were reasonably decent Nokia phones with multiline dot matrix displays, huge but fitted ok in a coat pocket and with a tiny ariel which wasn't really required.

      At university in 97 a few rich kids had mobiles, but by 99 I was one of the few without and I took a lot of stick for my refusal to get one.

      Not as ubiquitous as today obviously, but UK uptake in the 90s was quite good from my recollection.

      I remember finding it strange watching US TV shows and seeing these arcane boxy phones up until Matrix came out.

      More on topic my first experience was a palm something or other in the late 90s and having to learn Graffiti. It worked well but after a couple of weeks I realised paper and pen was much better so it went in a box and there it stayed.


  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    So if you're building a vest pocket computer, best make sure it fits in a vest pocket?

    TBH the story of the 2d version of the handwriting recog software is quite heroic but of course you never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression.

    And "Licensed the Mac OS widely"


    Funny how every attempt to do so seemed to end in litigation instead?

  17. James R Grinter

    Great as a portable device with modem

    I had one of the MessagePad 2000s and back in 1997/1998, with the keyboard it was a great little Internet-capable device when travelling! TCP/IP (with PPP and a PCMCIA modem or Ethernet), a simple web browser, and email.

    (The eMate obviously more than inspired the original iBook designs.)

  18. Bad Beaver

    Keep the green! Probably the best computers I ever had

    Wanting to put an end to endless piles of papers during my studies I picked up a second hand MP130 on the cheap. I quickly got hooked and ended up with the 130, the original Message Pad (for novelty) and two MP2100s. The latter machines are still there and they still work perfectly well even after years of use and abuse. There used to be a very true saying on the old NewtonTalk mailing list that "Newton never dies, it just gets new batteries". (A community was full of tinkering geniuses that constantly taught the devices new tricks. We ended up with WiFi, Bluetooth, hardware hacks of all sorts, full system emulation on more modern hardware…) To me, the Newton was invaluable. Incredibly powerful for its time, it was also very intuitive, built like a brick, worked like a charm, lasted forever on a single charge, was small, light and unobtrusive enough to take anywhere – and it had all my data, right there, at my fingertips (or on one of those massive 32MB cards)! A 90's cyber-dream come true.

  19. John Hobson

    Apple Emate

    I ordered a set of emates so that we could use them in non networked classes. They worked well as proto netbooks but the problem was they were not networked so you had to save on a floppy and print with a very early infra beam. It really was about 10 years to early.

    It was also pretty indestructible if dropped unlike an iPad. It even spawned a rival from Tandy using Windows mobile which was in colour and wireless. I was going to pilot the system but they went bust!

    However the eMate saved Apple. Jobs was very taken by the design and it formed the blueprint for the Apples that followed.

  20. This post has been deleted by its author

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Technical difficulties aside, the issue with all the various PDAs ( even the Psion Organisor) is that outside of a geeky few they never were a mass market device.

    I relied on various PDAs for years, because my work took me to lots of sites where I had t keep notes and make appointments; and I hate using bits of paper or silly FiloCraps. But most of the people I worked with were happy to spend ages leafing through paper diaries of one sort or another, deciphering scribbled notes that didn't fit on the page, fishing in pockets and bags for calculators etc.

    I don't know why this was so. My Sony Clie, and various other devices did all I could want, warned me of approaching appointments, loaded my stuff to my computer and kept back-ups so I didn't risk losing information. The others were forever picking up ( or losing) pages that fell out the silly little folder, fishing for pens or trying to work out what strange scribbles actually meant.

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