Pen Computing And Apple’s Newton Message Pad’s Impact On Today’s Mobile Computing

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

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

Although it was a niche product, it spawned a number of dedicated Windows pen computing tablets between 1991 and 1992. Next, Microsoft jumped into the mainstream of Pen Computing and soon saw many established PC companies making their own prototypes.

The problem with these early pen computers was that they didn’t have the technology to provide a great experience at the time. At the heart of this concept was special software that converts written scripts into digital text. However, the software didn’t work well, and by 1992 most pen computing projects were gnawing at the dust.

Apple, on the other hand, started working on pen computing around 1990 and designed a smaller handheld 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 convert written scripts into digital text, along with the hardware engineers who created the Newton designs.

To great fanfare, Apple introduced the Newton Message Pad on May 29, 1992 at a private media event in Chicago. I attended the event to watch then Apple CEO John Scully proudly showcase his most recent invention.

I was one of Newton’s early testers. I liked the concept, but it soon became clear to me and many others that the Newton couldn’t convey the type of written script to the digital text experience like his previous pen computers. The failure of Newton’s poor handwriting conversion skills was immortalized in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip.

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

He started a company called Palm Computing and wanted to show off a new product he was working on called the Palm Pilot. He started his discussion by showing him a piece of wood he had made with the Palm Pilot design. Then he showed us a prototype of the first commercial Palm Pilot.

But when he shared how the Palm Pilot works and explained the special software he created that teaches users how to write letters in a way that the Palm Pilot perceives, he made an essential prediction for Apple’s Newton.

He said adamantly that Newton would be a big loser. After working at GridPad and learning a lot about converting written scripts to digital text, he said the technology has yet to arrive for it to work.

Jeff explained that in order to be accurately converted to digital text, you must learn to write characters in a way that a pen computer can recognize. So Jeff and his team created an OS with scripts written for a digital text converter called Graffiti. When a user learns to write a letter that the Palm Pilot can recognize, it is instantly turned into digital text.

The Palm Pilot introduced the term PDA or personal digital assistant to the technical term and became a successful product that paved the way for today’s pen-based input computing devices. The Palm Pilot had considerable success in early pen computing, but Apple and all other companies failed.

Apple’s Newton Message Pad failed, but Apple learned a lot from this experience. Helped fine-tune the concept of using touch for navigation on iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It has also helped develop powerful software that converts the current Apple Pen and written scripts into text much better than in Newton.

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

Pen computing failed in the early 1990s, and it took nearly 30 years for technology to advance and make pen computing useful. Thankfully, the industry learns from mistakes and today pens are a useful tool for all types of personal computing applications.


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