Revisiting the great-grandfather to the iPhone: The Apple Newton

Long before it produced the iPod, iPod Touch, or the iPhone, Apple introduced a revolutionary hand-held device called the Newton. It was the first commercially successful PDA. Here's a look back.

Long before it produced the iPod, iPod Touch, or the iPhone, Apple introduced a revolutionary hand-held device called the Newton. It was the first commercially successful PDA. Here's a look back.


One of Apple's most successful products of recent times is the iPhone. The success of other Apple products such as the Macintosh, iPods, and iPhones make it hard to think of Apple being capable of making a product that isn't an automatic sensation and success.

Long before the iPhone ever saw the light of day, however, Apple tried creating another hand-held product called the Newton. The Newton was the forerunner of all modern PDAs and ultimately the iPhone itself.

First-generation pains

The old saying goes you can always tell who the pioneers are because they're the ones with arrows in their backs. Such was the case with new Newton owners. The Newton suffered not only from being a first-generation device but also from being a ground-breaking development in technology.

Most portable computers at the time were laptops, with complete keyboards. Several manufacturers had tried creating pen-driven computers in the 80s and 90s with little success. Go Corp developed a pen-driven OS called PenPoint OS. This was used by a few computer makers, but it never gained real traction in the market.

Microsoft also took a few swings at the tablet market, presaging the XP Tablet Edition with Windows for Pen 1.0. Windows for Pen was an extension for Windows 3.1 to allow pen input, but it didn't do anything either.

The Newton was the first widely available product to incorporate pen computing in a sub-notebook form factor. The actual name of the product was the MessagePad. The name Newton came from the Newton OS, which drove the MessagePad. Eventually, however, Apple rebranded the entire hand-held line as the Newton.

Apple overreached with the available technology of the day and designed the Newton to translate any handwritten words to text. Unfortunately, the handwriting system needed a lot of training and never did a very good job. It was widely ridiculed for how bad of a job it did translating text.

Gary Trudeau, Apple fanatic who is more popularly known as the creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, had a great time poking fun at the Newton:

Deservedly or not, the Newton gained a reputation not unlike that of the Edsel. Apple tried several iterations of the Newton until 1998, when it finally gave up on the product.  Other manufacturers such as Palm, Handspring, and Microsoft through its Windows CE and Pocket PC initiatives nibbled away at the market that the Newton created until Apple had enough.

Looking inside the Apple MessagePad H1000

The very first model of the Newton was the Apple MessagePad H1000. It's also known as the OMP, or Original Message Pad. It was introduced in August 1993 and was produced only until March 1994.

The H1000 included several applications to make it useful above the standard handwriting recognition. Bundled applications included:

  • Notes -A basic word processing program for handwriting notes
  • Names  - An address book
  • Dates -A calendar
  • Calculator
  • Formulas - A calculator that would do basic math formulas for you such as Net Present Value
  • Time Zones - A program to tell you the time in another time zone

The H1000 weighed in at just under a pound. The dimensions of the device were 7.25" x 4.5" x .75", making it just at the upper end of what was comfortable for a hand-held device. As you can see in the picture below, it was much larger than an iPod Touch. As a matter of fact, the screen on an H1000 was bigger than an entire Touch of today.

The machine featured an ARM 610 processor running 20Mhz. Painfully slow by today's standards, the processor was just barely OK for the Newton. The Arm processor in the Newton presaged later ARM processors, including the StrongARM line that was featured in many Pocket PCs of the early 2000s.

Built-in memory and storage included 640k of SRAM memory. You could expand storage memory in the device by using a PCMCIA card.

The Newton's screen was a standard black and white. There was no color option. Nor was there a backlight. Instead, the Newton used a green reflective screen, which was basically only useful in direct lighting. The reflective screen does have an advantage over modern backlit screens, however, in that it is still usable in direct sunlight. Screen resolution was limited to 336 x 240.

From a connectivity standpoint, you were pretty limited. The H1000 had no networking support. There was a built-in IRDa sensor to beam information to other IR-based computers. You could also add a 9600 baud modem for dial-up access. Built in to the H1000 was a serial port for connecting to another computer directly, but the Newton used an RS422 port, which was a variant of the PC-standard RS-232 serial port. Mac's came with RS422s, but you had to use an adapter to connect to a PC.

As for power, the unit ran on 4 AAA batteries. There was also a lithium battery for backup. You could attach an AC adapter if you wanted. The batteries would hold for 5 - 10 hours constant use and 1 - 2 weeks of standby.

Check out our Cracking Open the Apple Newton photo gallery to see what's inside this revolutionary device.

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