back to article Celebrating the iPhone's Newtonian past

As Apple begins handing out its wunderkind one can't help but be reminded of its last foray into mobile computing: the Apple Newton. It's easy to dismiss the Newton as the iPhone's retarded uncle, to blame its failure on dodgy handwriting recognition and an undeveloped PDA market. But to do so is to belittle a device which …


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  1. Ian


    I think the market has recovered from the newton. Yes the newton was flawed but it was the vision that possibly started the PDA's we see today.

    Apple have already announced that cocoa third party applications will be possible... just not yet.

    The people that bought the ipod are now used to having a reasonably 'large' device hanging about their necks.. I don't think they'll think twice about replacing it with their iphone. The newton never had that luxury.

    I was one of the first people with a phone/pda. I bought the original XDA/MDA then later bought an XDA II. I've been looking for a replacement for what I've become accustom to. I cannot find a good device that does Wifi, HSDPA and GPS ... I can get one, or both but not all three. If I want both I have to put up with a lesser powerful cpu. I dont believe in going backwards to go forwards.

    So obviously the iphone is not for me... but then I never saw the need for an ipod either.. my xda was fine with a bigger memory card.

    Why wont I buy an Iphone?

    No GPS,

    No HSDPA

    No removable battery

    No expansion slot.

    Otherwise I'd be one of the apple fan bois out there foaming at the mouth to grab steve jobs latest gear. For me ? I'll wait for revision 2. Same with the appleTV, I want a box that can also record.

    I so badly need a new phone :( I've bounced mine off more surfaces than you can imagine.... the OS that the iphone uses will become the utopia of mobile systems. I wont be buying one because the hardware lacks value worth the price tag.

    OTOH... I hear that some phones can be upgraded via firmware from EDGE to 3G/HSDPA so maybe those without worries of expanded memory and lack of a removable battery will be able to sleep easy at night.

    just 2cents from someone that finds pda/phones have value in their lifes.

  2. Ian Sargent

    Ahhhh, the Newton

    Ahhhh, the Newton! Bring it back ASAP - in colour!

    I loved my Newton but unfortunately it's long gone now.

  3. Andy

    Newton? Really?

    I'm old enough to have actually played with a Newton.

    If the iphone really is the next Newton, I'd be interested. But I suspect that it isn't. The killer (for me, anyway) is the lack of third party support. Thanks but no thanks.

  4. MD Rackham

    To have "played"?

    Does it make me ancient to have actually programmed for the Newton? To use one regularly up to this very day? I use it to take notes in meetings, where the "ink" is much better for me than a keyboard. Plus, the ladies dig the whole retro-geek thing, or so I keep telling myself.

    All of the shortcomings of the Newton (size, processor speed, display legibility, battery life) were solved in other devices shortly after the Newton was killed. If Jobs' ego (and hatred of all things Sculley) hadn't gotten in the way, Apple would have owned that market.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's the lowest form of identity pride?

    Your "celebration" stinks sad nationalism which I found one of the weakest identity pride. You'll understand what I mean...

    Two days ago, El Reg posts (by orlowsky) a lenghty report on Psion and begins his “special feature” with some key words such as:

    "Remarkable achievement"

    "Entirely new silicon"

    "This was the last time anyone undertook such a daunting task"

    Observe how passion fuelled by the flag can almost make you hear Britannia chanting.

    Today, Ray's “celebration” wants us to believe that there are some similarities between a product El Reg haven't yet touched or played with and a “retarded uncle” as they put it for Apple's Newton.

    Observe the wording used to celebrate this comparison:


    "Newton’s failure on dodgy handwriting recognition"

    “iPhone failings may yet plague its descendent”

    Oh Bill, I wish you guys had a mirror which showed your real image. You guys are turning into columnist “wannabes” because you swim in your own contradictions.

  6. Paul F

    Newton! Really!

    I'm old enough to have purchased two Newtons. A 120 and a 2100. And they both still work. Those were rock solid fantastic machines, very useful, just too darn big. I never had a problem with the handwriting recognition, but then I print everything (never managed a legible script, even to myself).

    As to the iPhone, I'll wait for 3G, a swappable battery (or clearer battery service path than currently exists), and voice dial capability. The lack of any one of those makes it a no-go for me.

  7. Brett Brennan

    What the world needs is a new NewtonPhone

    I was an early adopter of the original Newton. I still have it, upgraded, and actually fire it up once a year to see if it still works (it does).

    I've said the following before in comments here in El Reg, but it's worth repeating:

    A tool that uses a new paradigm to perform its function will NOT be popular and may fail, simply because the majority of people will not break from their habits to try the new paradigm.

    The Newton was just such a device: more than a PDA in that there were numerous applications that went beyond the simple text-only address books and PDAs of the time - from a Washington, DC Metro map that was interactive to various VT100 terminal emulators (for use with the 2400 baud modem) and email apps. It was BIG, relatively speaking (I had a custom-made belt case for it since it would not fit in most pockets), but it did A LOT in a very compact space. Using only 4 AAA batteries.

    However, it was NOT what people expected. The handwriting recognition was quirky until you had trained the recognizer sufficiently, and even with decent recognition, it was still difficult to use it as a VT100 terminal - pretty much an "emergency" device in that respect.

    It did allow you to do many documentation tasks that usually required pen and paper back then - like take e-ink notes at meetings and then save them as a file as part of a project docs folder, make quick sketches that could be plugged into other documents. You could even print from it directly (which helped distribute meeting notes to those Nimrods that couldn't read their own handwriting).

    However, the paradigm was too far beyond the majority of people that would want it: needing to take a couple of hours to set it up was "too much work".

    The same holds true for Mr. Gates Tablet PC. I use a tablet DAILY - I've had one since 2004 that has been doing daily service. Same as the Newton: it does many things superlatively, but it is NOT a PC replacement. It COMPLEMENTS a PC by allowing you to do "human" things in a very portable form factor and integrate them with "computer" things in a way that gets the best of both. However, it requires thinking in a new paradigm - not forcing the Newton or Tablet to do things that it can't or won't.

    The iPhone, however, is completely different. It really has no "new" breakthroughs that other phone devices don't already provide; or, rather, it uses new technology to provide the same paradigms that other devices provide. I don't expect the iPhone to suffer the same fate as the Newton. If the iPhone fails it will be from cost/service issues, not a new interaction paradigm that no one "gets".

    Finally, if Apple would revive the Newton and add cell phone capability to it (well, and update it to current technology standards) it MIGHT have the true KILLER device of the early 2000's. Imagine: a hip-worn device, larger than a phone but smaller than any tablet PC that uses Bluetooth headgear to allow phone access (with Apple's much improved voice recognition), the ability to control it completely with voice command without opening the belt-case. Out of the case it could do 85% of what a tablet PC does, and 100% of a internet phone and iPod do. Stylus input as well as "finger" pointing, on a REALLY nice size screen (maybe even 1024X768 in a small screen) - we'd have a real paradigm shift to a convergence device that isn't a crippled version of a laptop or an overly poky cell phone.

    Just thoughts, randomly. I certainly would pony up €1500 for this type of convergence. After all, I bought a Mac just to be able to dock my Newton...

  8. Warren


    I think the iPhone will be the ideal pocketable dimensions, as there was a cut-out and build iPhone kit on the web, which I successfully fooled a colleague by filling it with my 5th gen iPod, to add realistic weight when I handed it over.

    Whilst the ruse lasted only a moment on handover, we found ourselves handing it about for the sake of imagining the real thing.

    We were keen, and yet we're in the UK and won't get the real thing any time soon. Damn the phone carriers and apple's lockdown. Sim-free I tells ya! and millions of units will be sold even at un-subsidised prices. Anyone who'd buy a £200 mp3 player would easily do the maths and arrive at a £400 combined mp3/phone device.

    And yes my American friends, that is how much the 'being in UK tax' costs us. I'm talking 30gb prices aswell.

  9. David Haig

    Newton & PDA

    I was at the launch of the Newton - and really wanted to get one but it was far to expensive, finishing up with HP 100LX (I think that was what it was called) Small enough to carry in your pocket, with a keyboard (OK it had calculator style buttons) and a touch panel with Grafitti character recognition. Only problem was battery life was so bad it made the Newton look powered by the Duracell Bunny.

    Finally changed it for a Nokia Communicator 9000 when I needed to have a phone as well. Ot was a bit of a brick (I did get pulled by the police in Leeds because they thought it was a weapon) but it did the job and I found no reason to have the writing recognition. I'm now on a 9500i with WiFi, GPRS and loads of other connection services I don't use. It is a business machine so I don't need it to play songs etc so I'm afraid the iPhone won't be replacing it!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Newton all the way

    Newton OS features very well developed methods for cut, copy & paste, there is exactly nothing retarded about it. All Newtons also ran on standard batteries (10h or more). The 2x00 models boasted TWO cardslots. The 2100 still is an excellent computer - yet a little slow for certain tasks - that I use on a near daily basis. Even though it is not exactly small it is a highly ergonomical design. Perfect size to actually work with/write on. Of course I concur with Ian, it would be cool to bring it back. Faster, high-res color screen, no need for WiFi/Bluetooth via PCMCIA... yet it could still run the same basic GUI - because that was pretty much as good as it gets for a pen-based system. Maybe a tad slimmer & lighter. It is devastating to see that ten (10! Even more if you include the earlier Newtons) years later the industry is STILL unable to produce a product of the same elegance. UMPCs are a JOKE.

    Comparing the iPhone to a Newton is futile though. The one is a limited (as cool as it is) consumer comm device, the other is a fully fledged autonomous mobile computer.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    To Ian

    "I cannot find a good device that does Wifi, HSDPA and GPS ... I can get one, or both but not all three."

    FYI the HTC P3600 does all three; I have been using it for 7 months.

  12. Gabriele Bozzi


    Tsk , tsk.

    The Newton was launched when no comparable device was on the market. As Brett said: it had to make its own way in a market that (it was 1993) had no space for innovation.

    Furthermore: it was a personal digital assistant but no useful source of information was available either online or on the move just to justify its existence.

    Th iPhone is.. Well, it's a phone just to start with.

    Then it's also something else.

    It is marketed with a hype factor that did not exist in '93: yes the Newton was cool but Apple as a brand was barely recognizable and not many people knew it even existed outside the graphic design and IT sectors. Look at Apple today please.

    I am not saying this release of the iPhone will move many (small) boxes, maybe not, but I do not see it killed after its n-iteration: I think Apple is going to invest and renew the line as much as they can because they want a successor to the iPod form-factor and they think this particular device could take that place.

    Would you be surprised if, in two years, no iPod would ever exist anymore being totally overtaken by iPhones? I wouldn't.

    Apple can affod this: they did not invest in games but they are trying to be as pervasive as they can with common devices (and how did they learn the lesson: they even build obsolescence in their products: by making difficult to change a battery for example), just they keep them different and recognizable.

    Criticizing an iPhone is like criticizing a Mini (to make an automotive parallel): it's not the fastest, it's not the most confortable and it's outrageously overpriced, but some people like it (me too, even if the original has better taste) and they buy it because they feel it's a product that reflects their need for lust and to stand out of the crowd.

    I could not criticize a product that sells, I could dislike it but this is another story.

    When, you IT writers, will understand that some markets have definitively escaped IT and that old rules are not equal to everybody anymore?

    Why are you still writing about it anyway?

    See you on this column in two years from now.

  13. Ian


    Just saw this:

    " - GPS (with the new firmware versions only)"

    I'd been watching HTC for a while but seriously couldn't find anything that was a real 'upgrade' in tech.. surprised I missed this one :)

    Do you know if your getting a mobile 6 upgrade? certainly can't complain about the spec

    I'm sure I looked at the p3600 before.... I guess it must have been before they announced the GPS firmware versions.

    ty for the tip!

  14. Frank Bough

    I Miss (using) My Newton(s)

    I had a 130 and a 2100 as well as a couple of Palms and can categorically state that the Newton handwriting tech was so far advanced from anything else as to be unrecognisable. The Newton's REAL problem was its unpocketable size, but it was also one of the main reasons why you could actually write properly on the bastard! It was so GOOD at handwritten notation (whether HWRd or not - you ALWAYS had that choice with the Newton) that you could easily take longhand notes while on the phone in the back of a cab - no Palm or WinCE ever offered that.

    To be honest, comparing the Newton to the iPhone is spurious - one was a totally new direction, the other is significant refinement of an already maturing product type. Still, I'm not so dumb as to ignore the iPhone, and I'll snap one up so long as it's offered for sale in a free and fair manner in the UK - though I'm increasingly worried about talk of a no-SIM design. How? Why? Who even knows yet?

  15. Ian Sargent

    Bring back the Newton - please.

    It’s nice to still hear good things about the Newton and I wish I had never had to replace mine.

    With today’s technology just think what a modern Newton would/could be like – keep the size and functionality/applications etc but make it faster slimmer/lighter with a colour screen and longer battery life - keep the batteries replaceable though.

    Come on Apple, most of the work has already been done so it would probably not take much effort/cost to upgrade the OS to cater for a faster processor and colour. A couple of sockets for ‘plug in’ phone and/or GPS etc for those that want/need it and you would have a device that I would certainly buy.

    I can dream can’t I?

  16. Christopher

    RE: Newton! Really!

    @ Paul:

    I echo your sentiments exactly. Not only did I have a 120 (with OS 2.0), but I also had the 130. Then, the 2000 (which I still use everyday in my business) and finally, a brand-new 2100 that is waiting in the wings for my 2000 to die. Indeed the battery power was sophisticated -- using common garden variety AAs available anywhere in the world (I'm still using some of my rechargeables). Since I 'print', the handwriting recognition is 95-100% accurate. Pretty good for a piece of 10-year old technology. The build-factor is next to perfect. I've travelled all over the world with this thing and it has never let me down over all this time. My MP2000 fits comfortably in the corner of my attaché case. No dangling lanyard for me! Somehow, I doubt the iPhone will ever achieve that kind of loyalty through reliability & usability. The iPhone does look quite flash, though.

    It would, though, be nice if Apple updated the Newton, but I'm afraid they'd just go and do something stupid like seal the battery in or something. (Duh!)

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Talk about loyalty...

    ... if people still exhibit the "from my cold dead fingers" attitude about a device ten years after its "death", there must be something about it. Point one, the beast actually still works perfectly. It was made to resist, not replaced. If you dig a bit, you'll find tons of stories about how users forgot the Newton on top of their cars yet picked it up working after it hit the asphalt at speed, or about the Apple EDU-reps throwing eMates across the room against the wall to demonstrate that they were "kid-proof". Very, very reliable gear.

  18. James Anderson Silver badge

    Nothing new here ......

    I really dont see whats new or revolutionary about the iPhone -- maybe the marketing; It doesnt have anything that the Ericson P800 didnt have,

    And a pocket carried device with an fully exposed touch screen sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  19. Tim Porter

    It was the maketing wot killed Newton

    The major reason why the Newton failed was down to the marketing.

    Apple hired Steven Speilberg’s company to produce a short film that was shown to journalists. We didn’t get to see the device itself, instead ‘Newton’ was a slightly more masculine version of Pee-Wee Herman assisting a college professor; over the course of the film when the prof. moaned that he had forgotten to send flowers or book a restaurant table, Newton smugly replied he had already spoken to the relevant companies and it was taken care of.

    So when the Newton was finally unveiled, the journos were rather unimpressed. Many had been expecting a revolutionary communication device and were distinctly lukewarm what most judged to be an extortionately priced ‘electronic diary’. That the handwriting recognition was buggy, didn’t exactly help matters.

    And who was the Newton marketed at? Corporate businessmen – not exactly the type of person to be using Macs. One television advert shows two overweight and balding businessmen in a meeting; one isn’t paying attention, gets asked a question by the boss…. but luckily his mate beams the answer from Newton to Newton!!! Did Apple really expect people to think ‘ That could have been me! I must get a Newton.’

    Considering that the Newton was meant to be the legacy of John Sculley, you would have thought the man who brought us the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ (the reason why Steve Jobs wanted him as Apple CEO) could have at least got the marketing right.

  20. Ian

    WTF ???? anyone comment on this?

    Just wondering... has AT&T got something else up their sleeves or is this just more steve jobs hype?

    The reality distortion field is distorting my reality !!

    (disclaimer... I've changed from a mac hater at school to a mac lover after buying a G4 cube on ebay and modifying it and buying mac book pro at Christmas)

  21. Rob

    What happens if...

    .... the iPhone OS freezes and you need to reboot? Usually it's a case of removing the battery and majority of the time the freeze is not down to the OS but because of the network it's using (just ilke when your router stops talking to the internet as your ADSL has locked it up with static or such like and it needs rebooting).

    @Ian, Windows Mobile 6 is excellent and streets ahead of WM5, I have just upgraded my HTC device with it, runs so much faster, more stable and from what I can tell someone is porting the "Touch" software for other HTC devices, al a iPhone style interaction.

  22. Giles Jones Gold badge

    iPhone mk2

    I think many of us will wait for the second generation iPhone.

    I've seen the 25 minute video on the iPhone and the interface and usability is a breath of fresh air. So many phones have appalling interfaces. It's like designers are stuck in the 1990s still. But the iPhone interface is so easy to use, anyone will be able to use it.

    It's just a shame the first iPhone will cost so much to offer so little. When you factor in the expensive contract (24 month contract?), lack of removable battery and sim card, it makes you wonder what planet Apple are on.

    It makes me wonder if they were asked to make the SIM non-removable so you are locked into some expensive contract for the life of the unit.

    The speed of the internet will be crucial for those after a mobile net device. TCP/IP doesn't really work too well over phone networks. There's a lot of potential optimisations that can be done to make even an EDGE connection work fast.

  23. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    Anybody compared Palm Treo devices?

    Downloadable apps, many cheap or even free

    Quad band Phone (OK, only GPRS data)

    Handwriting recognition (OK again, you have to add it, but it's free)

    Web browsing

    External media (4GB SD cards supported)

    Moble modem for your PC

    SD card reader for your PC

    TCPMP media player (downloadable free)

    Big user base of Palm devices

    Available GPS add-on

    Token Camera

    Available now SIM free!

    If it was G3 and Wireless (there may be a wireless device that fits, but I've no experience) then it would be absolutely perfect. Of course, you could also look at the WIN-CE (sorry, mobile) versions

  24. Adam Pountney


    On a slight tangent - you guys have fingerworks keyboards?

    I have been scouring the net for ages looking for these since Apple Inc. incorporated them! I also love the iGesture trackpad they made. If only I could find a place to pick them up :-(

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Phone with Wifi, HSDPA and GPS ?

    N95 anyone ?

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What if...

    Mac don't usually freeze, and when they do, you have to send them back to a service center. On the other side installing a pen pusable reset button is not a problem or adding a watchdog timer. Many hard realtime systems use watchdog timers, that perform a hard reset when they are not cleared periodically.

    What is interesting is that it looks like apple managed to make macos-x portable enough to allow it to run on different types of hardware besides ppc and x86. The integrated nature of the iphone comes from the fact that it's target audience don't know what is a battery or a sim card, they just need a device that just works and they have the money to have skilled service personnel do such things as swapping out a battery. The iphone, like the xbox360 will be more of a service rather than a product.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The P800

    Oh sure James. I own a P800 (actually, I am on the 5th one as they all broke under warranty). It is a POS and unergonomic to use in so many ways I dare not make a list. The day I get my hands on a replacement (iPhone or whatever) I will happily make a video of how I drop a brick on it. Also, whether the iPhone does anything more than the P800 is not of interest. What is of interest is that the iPhone is supposedly much less likely to evoce any wishes for brick dropping.

  28. Christopher

    RE: Marketing

    @Tim Porter:

    Well I'm not too sure if it was the lack of marketing. I saw the video you speak of and I'm not sure if you are aware that it was a 'concept' video of which the Newton only represented a very small beginning step on the path to arriving at that stage shown in the video. In the early days, I honestly still believe the concept was misunderstood by the market and somewhat over priced -- even for the exec crowd -- and grossly misrepresented. as to its capabilities. That is what happens when ground breaking products get rushed to market. We shouldn't forget that, near the end in late '97 and early '98, the MP2100 was really starting to gain ground and start taking off until it got 'steved'. That model is still highly sought out and coveted by Newton devotees (such as myself!).

    Honestly, I think Apple was the Newton's own worst enemy, as they couldn't even market their core business, let alone a side venture, so maybe you have a point.

  29. Russ

    Newtons still thriving - and 2100 for sale!

    The Newton community is still thriving - just check out and amongst others. And in case anyone has their appetite whetted for some retro computing that's still ahead of the pack, I have a 2100 for sale on eBay - just search for item 180134821308. Might have another available soon, too. They're great :)

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