Every now and then I like to post photos of my ‘mobile office’ setup of the moment. Very often this setup includes one of my Newton MessagePads, and often enough, when people see I have a Newton with me, they’re curious to know why I keep carrying a 15-year-old device (20-year-old in the case of the Original Newton MessagePad). I’m talking about people who actually recognise the device. Sometimes — especially in person — I get asked what’s that thing I’m using that looks like an ebook reader but it has a colourful Apple logo on it and why is that and so on and so forth. I also get the occasional opinionated feedback: why use that old Newton when I’m also carrying an iPhone and a 9.7″ iPad.
The answer is quite simple, really. The Newton offers me a unique experience: writing naturally using a pen-like instrument, on the surface of a device which recognises and transforms my handwriting in typewritten text I can edit, copy, paste, and send to my Mac as a text file.
Today we are accustomed to technologies that give us instant gratification. In this regard, the Newton demands a bit more patience. Forget the jokes about the poor handwriting recognition: the later MessagePad models and version 2.x of the NewtonOS handle handwriting recognition much better than the first models. You have to practice a bit, there’s a stage of training and adaptation, where you help the device to understand your writing by correcting its mistakes, and where you sort of adjust your writing rhythm in a manner that the Newton can gracefully keep up with you, interpreting and transforming your words as you jot them down. Having patience at this stage is crucial. In my experience, you get to sacrifice a bit of instant gratification at the beginning, only to have a very satisfying reward later.
This means that now I can write a note on my Newton faster than I can type it on my iPhone or iPad. Also, if I’m in a hurry and I need to write down something quickly, I can tell the Newton not to recognise the handwriting on the fly — I can simply save the note ‘as is’ and go over it later.
The long battery life and the incredibly persistent storage are another two features that make my Newtons invaluable tools. I haven’t lost one bit of information since I started using my first MessagePad 2000 twelve years ago. These pieces of 1990s technology already got rid of the manual Save command well before the advent of iOS and other mobile operating systems. Whatever I input in the Newton, I know it won’t be lost (unless, of course, the device suffers some catastrophic failure), and if I need to do some extended word processing, I can always put down the stylus, connect the keyboard, and type away. But again, what really fascinates me and keeps me incredibly attached to my Newtons, is the experience of just writing down something as if I were using pen and paper, and see my writing recognised and neatly arranged in editable form.
There’s so much talking lately about how we live in the future, how ‘magical’ technology can feel today, and so on and so forth. I remember July 2001, that first weekend I spent learning the basics of my then-new Newton MessagePad 2000, and seeing my first handwritten notes and calendar entries digitised. Despite being already discontinued, I felt I was holding a powerful, futuristic device. Even today, at least in part, I still can’t consider it an obsolete piece of technology.