Twenty-five years ago this week, on the eve of the humongous Macworld Expo show in Boston, Apple formally announced the Newton. Officially known as the MessagePad 100, the pioneering “personal digital assistant” attracted lots of attention and inspired a cult following, but it failed to sell the masses on the idea of pocket-sized computers. When Steve Jobs returned in 1997, he killed the Newton, which had been the brainchild of his bête noire John Sculley. (Meanwhile, the original PalmPilot, introduced in 1996, had become the PDA category’s first breakout hit.)
In this video—apparently made around the time of the Newton’s release and designed to educate the dealers who’d sell Newtons to consumers—an avuncular host visits with three typical users of the handheld and discusses its features in dialog that’s stilted, even by the standards of 1990s corporate videos.
You need to try and think like a mid-’90s knowledge worker to understand what’s going on here. For instance, the scene with a guy standing at a payphone, cradling its receiver on his shoulder, and using both hands to wrangle his Newton is not a cautionary tale about cumbersome gadgetry. In 1993, that actually looked pretty convenient. And while the video does touch on tasks that people perform today with smartphones—note taking, calendar management—the showstopper is the Newton’s ability to send faxes, which required an optional dial-up modem.
Note also that our host stresses that you don’t need to be computer literate to use a Newton. Back then, there were still plenty of perfectly intelligent, successful people in the workforce who weren’t.
In 2012, I marked the 20th anniversary of Apple’s original 1992 pre-announcement of the Newton by trying to use one to do real work in the 21st century. For all the ways the MessagePad 100 had become an antique, the basic form factor was timeless enough that almost nobody noticed my mobile device dated back to the first Clinton administration.