'Love Notes to Newton' is documentary about the before-its-time '90s Apple product

Posted:
in General Discussion edited July 20
"Love Notes to Newton," which premieres this week, looks at the rise and quick fall of Apple's John Sculley-era personal digital assistant, and talks to both the original Newton team plus the small fanbase of enthusiasts that still remain.

Love Notes to Newton poster


Earlier in 2018 saw the premiere of "General Magic," a documentary about the company, spun off from Apple and including several prominent Apple alumni, that tried and failed to build a smartphone-style device, more than 15 years before the iPhone hit the market. Now, another film documents a completely different Apple-related gadget from the 1990s whose legacy and influence has far outlasted its time as an active product.

"Love Notes to Newton," directed by Noah Leon, tells the story of how the Newton product line came to be, why it failed to catch on, its death upon Steve Jobs' return to Apple, and the long afterlife the product has enjoyed, mostly among a small but passionate group of enthusiasts.

The film, which was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign, will have its premiere this Sunday at the Macstock Conference and Expo in Woodstock, Ill., with the film available for purchase soon afterward, on the video platform Vimeo.

The film had its genesis in a posting Leon himself made to a message board called "Newtontalk," in which he asked whether there had ever been a documentary or other television program about the Newton. Leon, who at the time was working at a college TV station, expressed interest in making such a film himself.

Eight years later, once he'd founded a production company, he finally did so, and the result is "Love Notes to Newton."

Much like the "General Magic" film -- in which some interviewees attributed their own product's failure to Apple bringing out the Newton around the same time -- "Love Notes to Newton" represents a look back at a very different time in the history of Apple, of Silicon Valley, and of innovation in general.

The film features more than 40 interviews, including former CEO John Sculley, and it capably gets across what Apple was going for with the Newton, and why it ultimately failed. Like the General Magic team, the Newton crew had an idea of what they wanted, and a lot of those things ended up as key parts of the technologies of the ensuing decades.

But during its own time, the tech wasn't there for the Newton -- and neither was the audience.


All about the Newton

The Newton debuted in 1993, during John Sculley's tenure as CEO, and it was pitched as the first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), featuring such technologies as handwriting recognition, and it ran on its own operating system, Newton OS.

It got far away from Apple's traditional design aesthetic, but beyond that, it was Apple's original foray into portable computing -- something that would bring the company its greatest-ever success a decade-and-a-half later.

The original MessagePad debuted in August of 1993, at the Macworld Expo in Boston, and it cost $700. While enthusiasts devoured them at first, some were put off by the price point, as well as how quickly the device gobbled up battery power. The MessagePad 100 arrived the following spring, followed by MessagePad 120 in 1995 and the 130 in 1996.

The Newton brand extended eventually to the eMate 300 product, which sported a keyboard but ran the Newton operating system. Selling for $800, the eMate lasted about a year.

And years before the Apple Store, a Newton Source retail chain opened in a few cities in 1994. The chain wasn't operated by Apple itself, but pioneered a retail concept based on Apple products- and its New York location was across from the Plaza Hotel, only about a block away from the current flagship Apple Store on Fifth Avenue.

On the market for about five years, the Newton wasn't the groundbreaking success that Apple hoped for, and one of Steve Jobs' first acts upon returning to the company was killing it off, along with other other products introduced during his exile.

Loving Newton





In the film, much of the material involving those who made the Newton has been discussed before, and it won't come as a shock that some on the team maintain to this day that the product would have had a chance, if only Jobs had given it more time before he killed it in 1998.

It is fascinating, though, to learn how the Newton required its engineers to build several elements, all of which were brand new, on top of one another, with no idea whether or not it would work.

The parts about the Newton enthusiast community are much more compelling. The fandom continues to maintain their devices, which still work to varying degrees, although some of them remain dust-covered. The group occasionally holds Worldwide Newton Conferences, as written about in Wired back in 2013. Several Newtons can be found on eBay, even today.

If you ever owned a Newton and have any affection for that product or that particular era in general, this documentary is likely to have some appeal for you. Some proceeds from the documentary will go to Be the Match, a charity for connecting donors and recipients for bone marrow transplants.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 17
    netroxnetrox Posts: 661member
    I remember the Newton and how I was impressed with its handwriting recognition. But it was bulky and I chose Palm due to smaller size and the Graffiti handwriting was very simple. It has cellular support as well. Oh how things have changed so much since then!
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 17
    dysamoriadysamoria Posts: 1,818member
    I bought one, second-hand, long after the fact of their cancellation. I wrote my Be News article about the first WalterCon on it while at the event (mostly because I had a proper keyboard for it and because airport security had killed my Palm Professional; you tell me how an x-ray machine makes a Palm device burn batteries like there's no tomorrow). The batteries even still held a charge, but not too great of one. Bought accessories for it at premium on eBay. It made a nice little word processor. Even had Internet connectivity through my cell phone. But it was not simple and easy.

    Sold it to another enthusiast almost a decade later.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 17
    bloggerblogbloggerblog Posts: 1,781member
    Owned one back in the day, I was amazed by the handwriting and shape recognition for its time.

    Many believe that Jobs hated Newton but I believe, Jobs being the visionary he was, saw a better implementation. The Newton was reborn as an iPad and iPhone. They use the same processor, icons, etc.
    watto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 4 of 17
    georgie01georgie01 Posts: 180member
    I had the MessagePad 2000 and loved it. It was a big upgrade over the previous models. I bought the external keyboard and maybe another peripheral or two. I’ve regretting selling it ever since.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 17
    backstabbackstab Posts: 110member
    I had an eMate. I literally don't know whatever happened to it.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 17
    john f.john f. Posts: 84member
    Everything prior to Newton OS 2.0 was meh. MessagePad 130 with OS 2.0 was good, but the device was huge compared to competition. MessagePad 2000 was great, handwriting recognition was so much better, but again the thing was huge in size. Stock eMate 300 was slow, but with memory upgrade speed improved dramatically, but the thing was enormous. Meanwhile PalmPilot was small, but the OS was limited.

    The biggest fault of Newton introduction was that they focussed so heavily on handwriting recognition. If they just build in a great on screen keyboard the platform would have had better success. But the onscreen keyboard of the OS lay on top of the interface, hampering the view of the software. Funny thing is you could purchase Grafitti character input for the Newton OS, and that worked great.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 17
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 2,911member
    netrox said:
    I remember the Newton and how I was impressed with its handwriting recognition. But it was bulky and I chose Palm due to smaller size and the Graffiti handwriting was very simple. It has cellular support as well. Oh how things have changed so much since then!
    Same here...
    Jobs has taken a lot of heat for killing off the Newton.   But, it was pushing the envelope and sucking Apple dry at a time when Apple simply couldn't support that level of development.

    Plus, and perhaps more importantly, as you point out, by 1998 the Palms had perfected the digital assistant and even merged them in with phones -- essentially the FIRST smartphone.  In the late 90's I used it to replace the pager my company demanded I wear -- they had become redundant.    I used Palm variant smart phones for years -- continuing even after the iPhone was introduced.   By the early 2000's it had all the features of a digital assistant, web browser and cell phone.  Plus, it simply met my needs better than an iPhone:  As a nurse I stored multiple large medical manuals on it and, as a home health nurse, I connected an external GPS to it for turn by turn directions to my patient. 

    I didn't get an iPhone till the iPhone 5 because the Palms met my needs better. By that time, Palm was in trouble and not developing while the iPhone had finally passed them by...
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 17
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,227member
    backstab said:
    I had an eMate. I literally don't know whatever happened to it.
    Same here. I have a Psion Series5. No idea where it’s gone. 
    Cat looks guilty though. 
    backstab
  • Reply 9 of 17
    I wanted a Newton for a long time and managed to buy an OMP second-hand not long after the Newton was discontinued. I played with it for 2 weeks before buying a MessagePad 2000 second-hand. I used it continually through to 2010 making it the longest lasting device I’ve ever had.

    When I first got it I was at University and used it for notes ands assignments and even taught the hand-writing engine the C language so I could hand-write my code. I featured it in my final year project designing a rocket-bootstrapping module as the future direction the research and development should be heading so the whole system would be more portable.

    I continued to use it during my working-career, even after a manager had instructed me to stop using it because it was embarrassing to have an employee using it in front of clients. It served me well as a Calendar, Contacts and Notes machine for that period right through to 2010 when it was finally replaced with a iPhone 3GS.

    To this day, my MessagePad 2000 still sits on the shelf above my desk in my home office and I was a regular lurker on the NewtonTalk mailing list until sometime after I had switched to iOS and they had a system issue and lost my membership. 

    I wish the Einstein Project had succeeded in delivering the Newton OS to modern hardware as I still to this day miss using it, the iOS has never quite captured the feeling I had using the Newton. However, the fading backlight and grey-scale screen made it more and more difficult to read the screen.

    I continue to search out different apps to provide suitable hand-writing recognition to the iPad, and think we are getting pretty close to hacking the ability to write notes with decent recognition again.

    I won’t end up being the guy who gets buried with his Newton but I’m probably never going to get rid of it either.
    georgie01bloggerblogwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 17
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,064member
    I still have my 2000, with the case and a load of accessories, including the telephone attachment. Every so often I take it outand play with it for a few minutes.

    Boy, what seemed so advanced, is so very painful to use now. The funny thing is that the last version, the 2100, began to sell in decent numbers before Jobs discontinued it. It was also noticeably improved. We can just wonder what would have happened if Jobs wasn’t so ticked at Sculley. 

    S far as the Palm goes, it was a far more primitive device. It did far less than the Newton did, but was a lot smaller, cheaper and lighter. Still, if Jobs hadn’t discontinued it, I think the Newton would have done well.

    the major thing about it wasn’t even the hardware, but the OS and programming model. The basic idea for for all software to exist in a “sea”, where all parts were modular, and interchangeable, along with being able to work as part of other software. It was really revolutionary. Later, Apple attempted to do something somewhat similar with their object oriented attempts, but Apple has always been flighty. If something isn’t taking off in the beginning, they would drop it. Still do.


    edited July 21 watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 17
    robin huberrobin huber Posts: 3,200member
    Had an original one with a few games too. Got it at a stand-alone Newton store in Westwood Village near UCLA. Was a fun toy, but ultimately was ahead of its time—needed wireless, internet, phone, etc. In short, needed to be an iPhone. Sold it at my garage sale two years ago. Still worked after cleaning up the residue of leaking batteries. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 17
    anomeanome Posts: 1,123member

    I couldn't afford a Newton, they were expensive, but they were bleeding edge tech, and pretty much every aspect of them became key to subsequent generations of hand-held devices. I knew two people who did have them, and they loved them. When I was finally in a position to afford something similar (after they'd been discontinued), I didn't find anything that I thought worked as well.

    The main thing is without Newton, ARM may well have died trying to sell desktop processors in a shrinking market. Apple asked them to re-jig the ARM line to mobile, and that led to their architecture winding up in everything. The ironic thing about people talking about Apple building an ARM desktop, is that ARM was a desktop processor until Apple came along.

    It's a shame it got "Steved", but as some have mentioned above, we got something even better in return, even if it took 10 years to get there. And, arguably, we wouldn't have the iPhone or the iPad without Newton, or at least they'd have been very different.

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 17
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,064member
    anome said:

    I couldn't afford a Newton, they were expensive, but they were bleeding edge tech, and pretty much every aspect of them became key to subsequent generations of hand-held devices. I knew two people who did have them, and they loved them. When I was finally in a position to afford something similar (after they'd been discontinued), I didn't find anything that I thought worked as well.

    The main thing is without Newton, ARM may well have died trying to sell desktop processors in a shrinking market. Apple asked them to re-jig the ARM line to mobile, and that led to their architecture winding up in everything. The ironic thing about people talking about Apple building an ARM desktop, is that ARM was a desktop processor until Apple came along.

    It's a shame it got "Steved", but as some have mentioned above, we got something even better in return, even if it took 10 years to get there. And, arguably, we wouldn't have the iPhone or the iPad without Newton, or at least they'd have been very different.

    ARM didn’t exist before. It was a creation of Apple, who got Acorn computer and VSLI together on that. Apple convinced Acorn to develop a mobile version of their Desktop RISC chip so that Apple could have a chip for their project, which was the Newton. They got VSLI in to manufacture the chips, and the three owned the company. ARM went independent, and later, unfortunately, Apple began selling off their stock. I assume because of financial needs at the time.

    By by the way, there is some history out there about Apple selling their ARM stock, much of it is simply wrong.
    edited July 23
  • Reply 14 of 17
  • Reply 15 of 17
    anomeanome Posts: 1,123member
    melgross said:
    anome said:

    I couldn't afford a Newton, they were expensive, but they were bleeding edge tech, and pretty much every aspect of them became key to subsequent generations of hand-held devices. I knew two people who did have them, and they loved them. When I was finally in a position to afford something similar (after they'd been discontinued), I didn't find anything that I thought worked as well.

    The main thing is without Newton, ARM may well have died trying to sell desktop processors in a shrinking market. Apple asked them to re-jig the ARM line to mobile, and that led to their architecture winding up in everything. The ironic thing about people talking about Apple building an ARM desktop, is that ARM was a desktop processor until Apple came along.

    It's a shame it got "Steved", but as some have mentioned above, we got something even better in return, even if it took 10 years to get there. And, arguably, we wouldn't have the iPhone or the iPad without Newton, or at least they'd have been very different.

    ARM didn’t exist before. It was a creation of Apple, who got Acorn computer and VSLI together on that. Apple convinced Acorn to develop a mobile version of their Desktop RISC chip so that Apple could have a chip for their project, which was the Newton. They got VSLI in to manufacture the chips, and the three owned the company. ARM went independent, and later, unfortunately, Apple began selling off their stock. I assume because of financial needs at the time.

    By by the way, there is some history out there about Apple selling their ARM stock, much of it is simply wrong.
    The Desktop RISC chip, was in fact the Acorn RISC Machine, abbreviated to ARM, that was used in the Archimedes desktop. I knew someone at University who had one, and had to get updated ROMs sent over from the UK periodically. The company was still Acorn at the time, although they were reduced at this point to selling just their processors, and became ARM as a result of the deal with Apple. I simply referred to them as ARM for simplicity's sake, rather than try and go into the history of the company in great detail.
  • Reply 16 of 17
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,064member
    anome said:
    melgross said:
    anome said:

    I couldn't afford a Newton, they were expensive, but they were bleeding edge tech, and pretty much every aspect of them became key to subsequent generations of hand-held devices. I knew two people who did have them, and they loved them. When I was finally in a position to afford something similar (after they'd been discontinued), I didn't find anything that I thought worked as well.

    The main thing is without Newton, ARM may well have died trying to sell desktop processors in a shrinking market. Apple asked them to re-jig the ARM line to mobile, and that led to their architecture winding up in everything. The ironic thing about people talking about Apple building an ARM desktop, is that ARM was a desktop processor until Apple came along.

    It's a shame it got "Steved", but as some have mentioned above, we got something even better in return, even if it took 10 years to get there. And, arguably, we wouldn't have the iPhone or the iPad without Newton, or at least they'd have been very different.

    ARM didn’t exist before. It was a creation of Apple, who got Acorn computer and VSLI together on that. Apple convinced Acorn to develop a mobile version of their Desktop RISC chip so that Apple could have a chip for their project, which was the Newton. They got VSLI in to manufacture the chips, and the three owned the company. ARM went independent, and later, unfortunately, Apple began selling off their stock. I assume because of financial needs at the time.

    By by the way, there is some history out there about Apple selling their ARM stock, much of it is simply wrong.
    The Desktop RISC chip, was in fact the Acorn RISC Machine, abbreviated to ARM, that was used in the Archimedes desktop. I knew someone at University who had one, and had to get updated ROMs sent over from the UK periodically. The company was still Acorn at the time, although they were reduced at this point to selling just their processors, and became ARM as a result of the deal with Apple. I simply referred to them as ARM for simplicity's sake, rather than try and go into the history of the company in great detail.
    It was the Desktop chip that had Apple interested, but it couldn’t be used, as is.
  • Reply 17 of 17
    Atomic77Atomic77 Posts: 61member
    Oh my gosh is the Newton even a thing? It sure looked ugly.
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