Pen Computing and the Impact of Apple’s Newton Message Pad on Today’s Mobile Computing

If you’ve been in the industry for at least 30 years or have been following technology for at least that long, you’ll remember the introduction of pen computing over 30 years ago.

Until then, all calculation was done via a keyboard. But a company in Los Gatos, California introduced what was called the GridPad 1900 in 1989 which used a stylus for input, and pen computing was born. This particular computer was intended for mobile field workers who could enter data via pen while in the field. (I still have an original GridPad in my office tech museum.)

Although a niche product, it spawned a whole series of dedicated Windows Pen Computing tablets around 1991-1992. Then Microsoft jumped on the Pen Computing bandwagon, and soon we saw plenty of traditional PC companies creating their own prototypes.

The problem with those early pen computers is that the technology was lacking at that time to provide a great experience. The heart of the concept was special software to convert the written script into digital text. But this software didn’t work well, and by 1992 most pen computing projects were in the dust.

On the other hand, Apple started to dabble in pen computing around 1990, designing a smaller portable pen computer called the Newton Message Pad. (I have two in my office tech museum.)

Apple had a dedicated team of software engineers whose sole purpose was to work on converting the written script to digital text, as well as hardware engineers who created Newton’s design.

To much fanfare, Apple introduced the Newton Message Pad at a private media event in Chicago on May 29, 1992. I attended this event and saw John Scully, then Apple CEO, proudly displaying their invention the most recent.

I was one of Newton’s first testers. Although I liked the concept, very soon it became clear to me and many others that Newton, like its pen computer predecessors, could not deliver the type of script written to experience either. of digital text. The failure of Newton’s poor handwriting conversion technology was immortalized in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic-

Shortly after the release of the Newton Message Pad, I met Jeff Hawkins. We had met when he previously worked at GridPad.

He had started a company called Palm Computing and wanted to show me a new product he was working on called Palm Pilot. He started our discussion by showing me a wooden sculpture he had made of the design of the Palm Pilot. He then showed me a prototype of the first commercial Palm Pilot.

However, by sharing how the Palm Pilot works and describing the special software he created to teach a user to write a letter the way the Palm Pilot would recognize it, he made a key prediction about the Newton of Apple.

He told me categorically that Newton would be a big failure. After working at GridPad and learning a lot about converting written script to digital text, he said the technology still needed to come along to make it work.

Jeff explained that you have to learn to write a letter the way the pencomputer can recognize for it to be converted into digital text accurately. So Jeff and his team created an operating system that included a script written for a digital text conversion program called Graffiti. Once a user learned to write a letter that the Palm Pilot would recognize, it instantly turned it into digital text.

The Palm Pilot introduced the term PDA or personal digital assistant into our technology vocabulary and became a successful product that paved the way for today’s pen input computing devices. Palm Pilot had significant success in early pen calculations, while Apple and everyone else failed.

While Apple’s Newton Message Pad was a failure, Apple learned a lot from the experience. This helped them refine the concept of using touch for navigation on the iPod, iPhone and iPad. It also helped them develop the current Apple Pen and the powerful software that converts written scripts to text much better than Newton.

Pen computing is now part of most Windows OS PC experiences and is used in Android tablets and some Samsung smartphones.

Pen computing failed in the early 1990s and it took nearly 30 years for technology to evolve and make pen computing useful. Fortunately, the industry is learning from its mistakes and today the stylus is an invaluable tool for all types of personal computing applications.

Comments are closed.