Is It Really Twenty Years Ago That I Bought A Messagepad?

Newton “Batmobile” PrototypeWired reminds us that twenty years ago this week in August 1993 Apple began selling the Newton Messagepad. The milestone is significant for me as it actually lead to some life changing events. I didn’t know it then, but my fascination with portable computing and willingness to spend nearly $1,000 on the new device would eventually lead me to realizing a dream of being a published author.

Back in 1993 I was actively working on finding a replacement for the Franklin Planner. It didn’t make sense to me to constantly re-write to-dos and other items every day as I flipped the pages of my planner. As a computer professional it made perfect sense to me to use a computer to track this type of information, unfortunately, while Sidekick did the job a PC was just too large to carry around.

For a year or so before I learned about the Messagepad I started using the Sharp Wizard and it did pretty much everything I needed it to do, but the Messagepad was so much more attractive. It had a bigger display and yes, I thought the handwriting recognition was sexy.

I remember going to a CompUSA to buy the Messagepad within the first day it went on sale, if not the first day. The Messagepads were so small that they were kept in a special secure area behind a counter, so I had to walk up and ask for one. I also remember the clerk making a comment along the lines that it was too expensive for what you got. Truth is, it was an expense I probably should not have put on my credit card, but it was the first “bleeding edge” technology I ever bought.

As the Wired article says, the handwriting recognition wasn’t perfect, but I remember it being good enough for me. You did learn how to write so that Newton recognized your handwriting. Of course, a little while after an app called Graffiti became available that provided perfect recognition but required one to write a different character set in a small dialog box for character translation. Graffiti eventually lead to Palm that lead to the real adoption of Personal Digital Assistants.

My biggest problem with the Messagepad was its shoddy synchronization with Windows. It wasn’t a surprise that Apple first released a computer synchronization tool for the Mac, but they eventually released a Windows version that never really worked as good as it should. I didn’t own a Mac, didn’t use one at work, and wasn’t going to buy one. All I wanted was to sync appointments and contacts from my PC to the Messagepad so that I didn’t have to do all that data entry.

I remember being hurt when Apple announced they were discontinuing the Messagepad. By the time that Steve Jobs killed it in 1998 the Messagepad had become an integral part of my life. Certainly, the device I was using would continue to work, in fact I am pretty sure that if I dug it out and powered it up even now it would still have all my data. However, I saw the writing on the wall, Newton would not be supported by Apple and therefore would not improve.

Looking at my options at the time, Microsoft had begun selling the Handheld PC in 1997 while the Palm Pilot began selling in 1996. I didn’t like the Graffiti recognition and the small screen on the Palm Pilot, while Windows CE provided synchronization with Windows and had the support of Microsoft. I decided to buy the HP 320 LX, even though I wasn’t enamored by its QWERTY keyboard.

Using the HP 320 LX lead me to creating a web site called the Windows CE Knowledge Center, where I consolidated links of information about Windows CE, and that along with my participation in the Windows CE Forum on MSN, lead me to be part of a small group of web site owners that Microsoft met with on a regular basis to solicit feedback and share information. Eventually that group would grow into something called Mobius, while my participation on MSN and Microsoft’s newsgroups also lead to my being recognized as a Microsoft MVP.

In the fall of 1999 I was contacted by an editor at Osborne/McGraw-Hill who had found my web site and asked whether I would be interested in writing a book. In the spring of 2000 my first book, How To Do Everything With Your Pocket PC and Handheld PC was published, and the rest, as the phrase goes, is history.

About Frank

Mobile enthusiast and author
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