True believers: The biggest cults in tech

You may be a member of one of these IT cults or simply know someone who is. Here's what makes each cult tick.

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Tech cult No. 7: The Tao of Newton
Established: 1993
Gathering of the tribes: Worldwide Newton Conference
Major deity: John Sculley
Minor deities: Too many to name; many are listed in MSU's unofficial Newton Hall of Fame
Holy scripture: The Newton FAQ
The Antichrist: Steve Jobs

How is it that a thing can die and yet live on?

Ponder this paradox, grasshopper, as we tell of perhaps the most slavishly devoted tech cult of all: the Apple Newton MessagePad, aka God's PDA.

Debuting to lavish hype in 1993, the Newton was arguably the beginning of the larger Apple cult and its aura of impeccable coolness. From the Newton's loins sprang most of what we think of as Apple chic today; many Newtonians draw a direct line from the original PDA to today's iPhone.

[ Have or want tech icons from the early days, such as a Newton, Mac 128, or early IBM PC? See what it's worth in InfoWorld's vintage-tech gift guide. ]

So what happened? The original Newton was bulky and expensive, with a few glitches, most famously its less-than-letter-perfect handwriting recognition (ruthlessly parodied by Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau). The smaller, nimbler, cheaper PalmPilot soon dominated the market. A few months after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he killed the device, earning the permanent enmity of the Newton faithful, who would hold up their MessagePads in silent protest during Jobs' keynote speeches.

Bowed but unbeaten, Newtonians continued to develop software as open source projects. MessagePad hackers added support for MP3s, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth; the Einstein Project created Newton OS emulators for devices like the Sharp Zaurus and Nokia 770, as well as Apple Macs and Windows PCs. Each year the Newton faithful gather at the Worldwide Newton Conference.

Meditative rituals for the cult include "installing software, replacing backlights, endlessly discussing rumors of a new Apple tablet device, complaining that the PalmPilot stole our thunder, and correcting commoners' assumptions that non-Newton devices are true PDAs," notes Grant Hutchinson, who maintains the NewtonTalk mailing list (as well as a chronological list of every haircut he's had since 1998, if that tells you anything).

He says Newtonians can be spotted by the transcendental glow cast by their MessagePads' green backlights. And they live for the day the Newton will rise again -- perhaps in the form of that oft-rumored tablet, the existence of which Apple steadfastly denies.

"The echo of cult-likeness might be in the wish to stop time, to deny the reality of loss," notes psychologist Mike Jolkovski. "For a while, the Newtonians kept hope that the gizmo would rejoin the Apple product line -- much as people pined for the reunion of the Beatles. But no, the Beatles aren't getting back together, the Newton is gone and will stay that way, and we are all going to die."

But, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Wasn't it Steve Wozniak who said that?

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