Apple Newton 100 (Pt. I)

The Apple Newton was released way back in 1993 and although I thought it looked interesting, I steered clear of it for two reasons:

  1. It was expensive. Very expensive. Several hundred pounds of expensive.
  2. I’m left-handed, so figured that a device which relied so heavily on handwriting recognition probably wasn’t for me.

Fast-forward to 1996. I was a student in Manchester, and a whisper was spreading round the electronics department like wildfire: a local Apple store had a huge box of Apple Newtons that they were selling cheap. Very cheap. 40 of cheap.

I rushed to the shop, and joined the long queue of students hoping to bag a bargain. It seems that the rumour had spread to our department from the computer science department – and just about all of them had got there first. The queue was so long, in fact, that I expected to finally reach the door just after they sold the last one. But I was in luck: they actually had two huge boxes of Newtons – and I really do mean huge. By the time I arrived there was easily another hundred or more in the box, so I had no difficulty in getting one.

The truth is that a lot of the Newtons in the box were “dead” or locked. Some of the computer science people managed to track down the magical incantations required to restart or reset them, and picked up a vast quantity of “dead” machines at 5 apiece – which they then sold on at a profit, of course. For a few days afterwards there was much swapping and trading of devices as everyone shuffled parts around trying to get a better machine, complete with a battery cage (so that it could take standard AAA batteries – those who failed to get one had to subsequently get creative with a soldering iron instead).

So although I started with a first generation Newton – or an Original MessagePad (OMP), as it’s known – I quickly upgraded to an MP100 – the second generation which looked identical, but had a slightly later version of the operating system. I managed to get one with a battery cage, too – though I did have to solder up my own serial cable to connect it to a desktop computer.

Having dealt with issue (1), it was time to move onto issue (2) – how would the MP100 deal with my lefty scrawl? The answer, it turned out, was “surprisingly well”. It took a little training to get the recognition accuracy up to an acceptable level, but we’re talking hours rather than days. Once the little black box was used to my writing – and with a little adaptation on my part, I’m sure – it was pretty damned good.

Perhaps more important than the recognition was the fact that it was easy to fix mistakes. With each correction it would learn a little more, so that the recognition became better over time, but even without this benefit the OS designers had obviously realised that being able to correct mistakes easily is just as important as getting things right in the first place. When a word was incorrect you would simply double-tap on it to see what other possibilities it could be – or to edit it letter-by-letter if the Newt had really fouled up. When it did get something completely wrong, a quick scribble through the word (or letter) would blow it away in an animated puff of smoke. Very intuitive, and also very satisfying.

So having got the first obstacle out of the way – could I actually use the thing – it was time to take a look at the software which was built into the Newt… and that will be the subject of Part II.

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