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


If you have been in the industry for at least 30 years or have followed technology for at least this long, you will remember the introduction of pen computing 30+ years ago.

Up until then, all computing was done via a keyboard. But a Los Gatos, CA company introduced what was known as the GridPad 1900 in 1989 that used a pen for input, and pen computing was born. This particular computer was targeted at mobile field workers who could enter data via a pen while out in the field. (I still have an original GridPad in my office tech museum.)

Although this was a niche product, it birthed a whole host of dedicated Windows Pen Computing tablets in and around 1991-1992. Next, Microsoft jumped on the Pen Computing bandwagon, and soon we saw a lot of traditional PC companies creating prototypes of their own.

The problem with these early pen computers is that the technology was absent at this time to deliver a great experience. The concept’s heart was special software to convert the written script into digital text. But this software did not work well, and by 1992, most pen computing projects bit the dust.

On the other hand, Apple began looking at pen computing around 1990, designing a smaller handheld pen computer called the Newton Message Pad. (I have two of these 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, along with hardware engineers who created the Newton design.

With great fanfare, Apple introduced the Newton Message Pad at a private media event in Chicago on May 29, 1992. I attended this event and watched as then-Apple CEO John Scully proudly showed off their most recent invention.

I was one of the early testers of Newton. While 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 written script to digital text experience either. The failure of Newton’s poor handwriting conversion technology was immortalized in the Doonesbury comic strip by Gary Trudeau

Not long after the…

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