Monday, June 13, 2022

Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 Years On

Jeremy Reimer (Hacker News):

Apple engineer Steve Sakoman was bored after launching the Macintosh II. He wanted to make a portable device like the pioneering PC laptop he had built for Hewlett-Packard. To stop him from leaving Apple, vice president Jean-Louis Gassee let him set up a “skunkworks” project to pursue his dream. But he didn’t want to just make a Macintosh laptop. He had a vision of a tablet-like device, the size of a folded A4 sheet of paper, that could read people’s handwriting.


At the same time, another “top secret” Apple division was also working on unique portable devices and software under the code name “Pocket Crystal.” Larry Tesler was asked to evaluate this team to see if it might be able to replace the Newton. Instead, he suggested spinning out Pocket Crystal into a separate company (which became General Magic) and refocusing the Newton project with new hardware and new leadership.


Apple found a small British computer company, Acorn, which had improbably created a new CPU design that offered decent speeds at impossibly low power requirements. Apple invested $3 million into the company and helped design a new revision of its chip, the Acorn RISC Machine.


Steve Capps described the development environment as being incredibly advanced. “The whole architecture that we cooked up had no difference between data in the ‘file system’ and in memory (and for Newton, in the ROM that held the code),” he said in an interview with Ars.


NewtonScript influenced the creation of JavaScript, with its prototype-based object model, dynamic variable typing, garbage-collected memory, and fast interpreted design.

This last part seems to be incorrect, but the article is worth reading.

Jack Wellborn:

PDAs never achieved ubiquity. Instead, they were a necessary stepping stone toward smartphones, which themselves weren’t ubiquitous until iPhone and Android. I think VR has a bright future, but I don’t see VR as it exists today being the thing that becomes the next smartphone. Rather, I see VR as another necessary and very exciting stepping stone toward something ubiquitous that is yet to come.

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Like the article mentions, the fact that it came out before there was any Wi-Fi kind of killed it.

Now I feel like getting a stylus phone.

I have a newton in my collection of apple hardware. It still works, but the problem is that I can't actually figure out how they wanted you to use it. It basically appears to have been an interactive electronic notepad.

There are some great Newton ads on YouTube that answers your question. A big part seems to have been faxing people.

There's a Newton emulator for Android phones. If you have a phone with a Stylus, like a Samsung Note, you can turn it into a tiny Newton.

One of the issues is that a lot of the Newton software has never been archived (including one its best games, Columbo's Mystery Capers), so much of that is lost.

When I moved to the Silicon Valley in 1997, I learned about the Ricochet network, a local wireless network with portable (battery powered) modems the size of a Newton. With these, I was able to be online with my Newton 2000, e.g. for reading e-mails. There were also some web browsers for the Newton, but they were near-unusable, as they could not keep up with the ever-growing html features and website complexity.
Sadly, the Ricochet network was only available in that area, and eventually it went bankrupt when they tried to go bigger with a big investment in faster modems (which, for a time, was quite impressive).


I found what you're talking about (awful commercials, but fun to watch), and yes seems to be very faxing-centric. It strikes me as odd as to why they focused on faxing instead of pop-based email. You'd have to have phone line/connection either way, and the modem shouldn't have been an add-on.

We're not gonna mention For All Mankind season 3 in a June 2022 story about the Newton?

(My own impression: we never had one. An acquaintance did; a 130 or 2000, maybe. Ca. 1996, I wanna say. They also had a Psion either before or after that.

It struck me even then that the ideas seemed ahead of their time. Networking wasn't pervasive, much less wireless.

Also, what a mess at Apple that they spun off General Magic, then also spun off Newton, then killed it off. It's a miracle they survived with that kind of leadership.)

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