Retro-Tech Planning with the Newton

I have a little confession to make. Now, most people that know me well have no doubt that I’m a gadget freak and a tinkerer, although I do try at every moment to curb those tendencies. For example, after all those years of using several generations of Palms, I gave them up to use a paper planner, and have been quite happy about that decision. To this day, I refuse to carry a cell phone unless I’m travelling in the middle of nowhere or have to be on call for an urgent project. I eschew a workshop of testosterone-fueled power tools if I can use my Leatherman instead. And, although I’ve read a few shelves’ worth of books about automotive mechanics, I resist the urge to prop open the hood, lest something explodes or some sharp bits leave me digitally impaired. I know my weaknesses and limitations.

But I’ve harboured an urge for twelve years that’s never been satisfied. Every now and then, a product comes along that changes the face of the computing industry, like the Altair or the Apple II, and my coming-of-age as an IT professional was marked –from afar– by the emergence of another one. It was a brick-shaped thing, barely able to fit into a trenchcoat pocket, and which emitted a gorgeous green glow. It was a thing initially of ridicule, but that quickly set a precedent for portable computing before being unceremoniously axed by Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple, leaving legions of fans supporting the device for a decade after its last production run. I’m speaking, of course, about the Apple MessagePad, also known as the Newton.

A month or so, a friend of mine was rummaging through the tech graveyard of his company when he found a two lonely but unblemished 2100s (the last, and most powerful of the Newtons) buried in a pile of PCMCIA cards and serial cables. Of course, he kept one for himself, but –knowing my long-standing desire– the other made its way to me in short order. (The anticipation was incredible… I peered into my mailbox as frequently as a child peering into an oven of chocolate chip cookies.) Soon, my beloved green brick had arrived, and within an hour I understood why so many people have been petitioning Apple for a Newton II since 1998.

While the Newton is often called the first true PDA, it’s arguably also the first tablet computer. It’s about the size of a mid-sized paperback book, and 22 oz in heft. The fact that it was made in 1997 belies the astounding fact that many of its capabilities are still considered current today. I can attest that its handwriting recognition (yes, with real cursive script) is unparalleled among all the other devices I’ve tried, and it has two PCMCIA card slots that can accommodate and use memory cards, fax modems, network cards, wireless network cards, and even Bluetooth. I’m constantly amazed by the way it functions — completely unlike most computers and PDAs I’ve owned, but far more intelligently. A keyboard attachment allows fairly advanced word processing, a typical battery charge lasts from 12 to 25 hours, and the slew of software available (including new titles on a semi-regular basis) is mostly free from sites such as the United Network of Newton Archives. Meanwhile, the NewtonTalk mailing list is one of the most active lists I’ve joined in recent years.

So why am I writing about the Newton here? Well, the Newton is essentially a digital equivalent of my paper-based planner. Unlike my tiny Palm Tungsten E, it is large enough to write comfortable, and has few frills to distract me from my day-to-day usage. In fact, it’s rather Zen-like in a way, affording me a focus that allows me to concentrate on my words, my lists, and even my sketches in a holistic fashion, wherein all are joined, and nothing external exerts an undue pressure upon my thoughts.

I’ve only just begun to explore what the Newt has to offer, but have fallen effortlessly into the way that notes flow easily, that hierarchical lists (even checkboxed products and tasks) are constructed without impediment, that the built-in microphone catches scattered verbal thoughts, and that sketches mix with text mix with drawings mix with inked jottings. The address book and calendar/to-do lists are more than adequate, providing the basics without the clutter that comes from too many options. And the Assistant that correctly interprets “Remind me to take out the garbage” or “Lunch with Mary at the club” allows me to manage my time and tasks no matter where I am in any program.

I’ve managed to scrounge up elsewhere some cables to sync the Newt with my MacBook Pro, a wireless network card to browse the web and collect news, and a keyboard to write with, and while I do look forward to those packages in the mail, in the meantime I’ve begun to truly enjoy this antiquated but far-from-obsolete bit of tech history. So, was it worth the twelve-year wait? An unqualified yes. While it’ll never replace my paper planner, it’ll be an integral part of my work life for the foreseeable future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.