Before the iPad, there was the Newton
MessagePad 120 – it didn't suck
This Old Box 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.
The MessagePad 120 had the longest lifespan of any device based on Apple's Newton platform: from its October 1994 release in Germany (January 1995 in the US) until June 1996. The 120 thus deserves the respect of those of us who remember that exceptional platform, one that improved over time — but not enough to overcome its rough beginnings
The 120 was also the first MessagePad to be upgraded to Newton OS 2.0 (up from 1.3), in late 1995. This significant improvement over the first OS's iterations was sadly ignored by most of the gadget-buying populace, whose minds had already been made up by the media Scheiße-storm over the shortcomings of the original Newton OS.
All in all, the Newton platform made it through seven Apple hardware iterations, from the original Newton, which made its debut at Macworld Boston in 1993 where it begat long lines of fevered fanbois with checkbooks in hand, to the MessagePad 2100, which was taken off life support by Steve Jobs in February 1998.
The Newton platform also took a hallucinatory side trip in the spring of 1997 in the guise of the eMate 300, a Newton-powered laptop aimed at the education market. In this observer's opinion — and I tested it upon its release — the less said about that Giger-inspired oddity, the better.
As a card-carrying fanboi, I owned an original Newton — now referred to as the OMP, for "Original MessagePad" — but try as I might, I never could bend that little thing to my will. My OMP ended its life — quite literally — as a doorstop in a thickly carpeted office conference room.
When disappointed, we fanbois can be oh, so cruel — but we were won over by Newton OS 2.0 and the MessagePad 120.
Like the OMP, the MessagePad 120 was powered by a 20MHz ARM 610, but it had the advantage of being upgraded to OS 2.0 in late 1995, an OS that was was light years ahead of the earlier Newton's publicly shamed first iteration.
Powered by OS 2.0, the MessagePad hit its stride in the much more powerful, 162MHz StrongArm-based 2000-series 'Pads of 1997, codenamed "Q" — but whether the 2000 and 2100 achieved that appellation in honor of Star Trek's multidimensional tickster, James Bond's parts supplier, or a cheesy 1982 movie is lost to history.
Equipped with OS 2.0, the MessagePad 120 was a welcome traveling companion, weighing in at one pound (0.45kg), and measuring 8 by 4 by 1.2 inches (20.3 by 10.2 by 3 cm).
Its black-and-white display — well, black-and-greenish-gray, actually — was far from the iPhone 4's much-vaunted "retina display". It had a resolution of a mere 320-by-240 pixels, wasn't back-lit, and since it wasn't grayscale, which would have allowed for anti-aliasing, individual pixels were clearly visible.
But we're not here to cavil, but to celebrate on old friend — although one that did have a thoroughly annoying tendency to whine. Come along with me through the next few pages for a visual celebration of the pioneering PDA that coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Next page: A sexy beast — well, for the 1990s
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.
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.
I'll stick with my Psion, thanks.
As an Amiga user, I resent being called an Amigo. Some (most?) of us prefer being called Amigans. Stop trolling the commentards, please :)
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:
 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.
 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.
 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).