Apple Newton Paved the Way for Mobile Learning

By Cait Etherington
February 27, 2018

Twenty years ago today, Apple announced that it would no longer produce the Newton. What was the Newton? For those who don’t remember, the Newton was the not-so-distance ancestor of today’s iPads and iPhones. At the time, however, the Newton was simply described as a “personal digital assistant” or PDA. While Newton enthusiasts decried its death, in many respects, the end was just the beginning. While relatively short-lived, the Newton paved the way for both mobile devices and the rise of mobile learning.

What Was the Apple Newton?

Apple Newton MessagePad, Model H1000 housed at the National Museum of American History.

A 2013 article in WIRED, aptly described the Newton as follows: “By modern standards, it was pretty basic. It could take notes, store contacts, and manage calendars. You could use it to send a fax. It had a stylus, and could even translate handwriting into text. Well, sort of. At the time, this was highly ambitious. Handheld computers were still largely the stuff of science fiction.” But as the author of the article, Mat Honan, adds, “Despite its relatively short life, the Newton and the thinking that went into it still resonates today. Hobbyists still use them. There’s a museum dedicated to it. And more to the point, it still exists in the devices you use today.”

So, why was the Newton canceled? There were likely two factors that killed the Newton. First, it was pricey. Naturally, at the time, replacing your notepad or paper calendar, which would likely cost only $10 combined, with a $700 portable computing device was a hard sell. Second, Steve Jobs reportedly hated the Newton.

The Newton Legacy

While the Newton quickly drifted into obscurity, it did not entirely disappear. The device was driven by a 20 megahertz ARM 610 processor with 630 kilobytes of RAM and somewhat shockingly, it was powered by four AAA batteries (yes, like the ones you might pop into a small flashlight or toy). While we’re no longer popping AAA batteries into our mobile devices, the Newton’s ARM processor, in fact, continues to play a key role in mobile computing.

The Newton’s real legacy, however, was the conceptual leap it helped to enact. The history of technology is replete with intermediary steps–moments of transition when old and emerging technologies merge–and the Newton was one of those moments. For the first time, we were given a device that we could carry with us and that had the capacity to do many things. You could use your Newton to look up your contacts, keep track of meetings, takes notes, or do basic math calculations. The Newton, in a sense, was significant because it prepared us for the development of the multi-use devices that now define our everyday lives. While we now take for granted the fact that a phone is also a calendar, camera, video camera, and way to access the web, back in 1991, the idea that one small portable device might do multiple things was still new and revolutionary. The Newton pried open our imaginations and provided some of the hardware needed to set digital mobility in motion.

From the PDA to the eMate

While Newton PDAs were not initially designed for mobile learning, on October 28, 1996, Apple rolled out the eMate, which was one of Newton’s many product lines. As Mike Lorion, at the time vice president of education for Apple Americas, explained on the occasion of the eMate’s release, “A distributed learning environment provides learning for anyone, anytime, and anyplace. It extends the reach of learning from the classroom to the library, to labs, homes, other schools, local communities, and around the world.” Lorion further emphasized, “We worked closely with educators during every phase of development to make eMate 300 an integral part of a distributed learning environment.” As Apple’s press release for the eMate noted, with the eMate, students can now “do most of their critical work wherever they happen to be–in a lab, classroom, on a field trip, or at home–while still taking advantage of the multimedia and information access tools available in schools.”

While we are no longer talking about the “distributed learning environment concept,” in many respects, the eMate, one of Newton’s many offspring, represented the first step toward what we now call mobile learning. Combined with the Newton’s broader impact on mobile communications, the Newton undoubtedly played a key role in mobile learning history and more broadly, personal computing and communications.