A sexy beast — well, for the 1990s
The MessagePad 120, code-named "Gelato" during its development, was manufactured in Taiwan by Sharp for Apple — well, in those days, Apple Computer. Although the 120 appeared a mere 15-plus years ago, it's interesting to note how far miniaturization and fit-and-finish have improved in the ensuing years.
Check out, for example, the width of the seams and the lack of precision of the MessagePad 120's speaker grille — which, by the way, was a separate piece of plastic that slipped in between the top and bottom body shells, and which in a pre-Jobsian lack of hyper-precise stylishness had a not-quite-matching color.
Another pre-Jobsian touch in the long-gone days of Newtonia was that all MessagePads, the 120 included, allowed users to replace their own batteries with store-bought cheapies. What a concept: user serviceablity, not user infantilization. A rechargeable NiCad pack was also available from Apple.
The MessagePad 120's infrared port was pre-IrDA — that standard wasn't implemented until the MessagePad 2000 and 2100, and the late, unlamented eMate 300. The 120 used the Sharp ASK (amplitude-shift keying) infrared protocol with Apple extensions — and if you want more info about those ancient IR days, check out the Newton Infrared FAQ.
In the paleolithic mid-1990s, even such straightforward hardware adjustments as contrast control were performed through dials, such as on the MessagePad 120. If you talk with service folks from those days, you'll learn that more than one MessagePad owner who thought their device had died was chagrined to discover that their contrast control had inadvertently been dialed back to zero.
Next page: More sexiness — and eventually a striptease
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).