The Apple Newton MessagePad revisited: Warts, wins, and all

The 20-year-old device shows both how much change has passed -- and the consistency of mobile's underlying principles

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Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. At the time of the MessagePad, what existed was the notion that computing could be even more personal, and the technologies seemed in reach to achieve that. It turned out the handwriting part was not, but nor were components yet small enough to make pocket-size devices, and the LCD screens were very difficult to read. It's amazing what we put up with on all PDAs!

But in using my MessagePad MP100 -- which actually works, though it's 20 years old -- I see a lot of what we take for granted today. The MessagePad's icon row at bottom lives on as the Dock in today's iOS. The calendar, note-taking, and contacts apps bear a striking resemblance to those in today's smartphone, no matter the OS. The pop-up dialog boxes are similar to today's operating systems too. The ability to switch among apps also evokes what we do today.

You could argue the striking similarities between a 20-year-old MessagePad and a smartphone of today proves there's little innovation to be discovered. Had the cloud existed in 1993, perhaps the MessagePad would have done the syncing we take for granted in Google's and Apple's services -- the notion of syncing was well known.

But I believe the MessagePad argues the opposite. As people, we've tackled certain tasks for centuries, such as taking notes, organizing contacts, and maintaining calendars. But the methods evolve over time, growing more capable and introducing new notions; the simple alert of an upcoming appointment is a humble example, whereas the anywhere, anytime synchronization is a transformative example that required the whole cloud infrastructure and API notion to take root.

You really see the evolution of the methods and the enabling technologies when you look at the surprisingly capable MessagePad of 20 years ago and an iPhone or Android smartphone of today. But you also see the ability to film and edit movies on today's devices, way beyond the scope of a PDA. I'm sure we'll see more innovation in both their methods and in unexpected new capabilities (or unexpectedly refined ones) in the devices yet to come.

The MessagePad of 1993 shows how much can change even when so much seems to stay the same. We'll realize the same in 2023, or even 2018.

This article, "The Apple Newton MessagePad revisited: Warts, wins, and all," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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