MessagePad 2000

Eighteen years ago this week, Apple shipped the MessagePad 2000.

The MessagePad 2000 offers the versatility of a laptop- including email, fax, and Internet access capability, as well as personal productivity software--at a fraction of a laptop's weight: 1.4 pounds. Incorporating the 160 MHz StrongARM processor, the MessagePad 2000 performs up to ten times faster than current handheld computers in the market today and works easily to exchange data with both Windows and Mac OS-based computers.

The following interview was made with three Newton hardware engineers shortly after the MessagePad 2000's released. Genghis7777 was kind enough to archive the complete interview on his My Apple Newton website. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

The idea was to design a PDA for the mobile business professional. The 2000 wasn’t envisioned to compete with an organizer, but rather to replace some of the common functions people do with a laptop–and do a better job at it. We looked at the forerunner Newton 110/121/ 130 Series and learned from its mistakes, taking a rototiller to the hardware and software and re-implementing the pieces which weren’t well done the first time around.

No. But we knew users complained about the lack of PCMCIA slots on the original Newton. Without two slots, they couldn’t use storage and communications PC Cards at the same time. We were already heading for a larger form factor to accommodate an additional slot. Our concern was how to reduce cost and power while boosting performance. Cirrus was looking for a partner to help it get into the PDA market.

The MessagePad 2000 was designed from the start to replace the basic functionality of a laptop rather than compete with the lowly PDA. By 1997 I am glad Newton’s engineers had finally decided what they wanted the MessagePad to be.

It was difficult. We had to manage two logic designs in parallel to keep the MessagePad on schedule and to bring the StrongArm into the design without adding risk. At the engineering validation phase, one logic board ran a 25-MHz ARM710 and the other a 162-MHz StrongArm.

Sure. We were very careful to make all the code dynamic. For the most part, the software engineers on the team didn’t have to know what processor they were writing code for. Low-level software was implemented so that either one of the existing prototypes would function with it.

I doubt a 25-MHz ARM710 would have been very effective as a laptop replacement, and it the Newton engineering team knew it. That is why the MessagePad 2000 was simultaneously designed with two different CPU architectures and its own form of Universal binary.

The unit’s DRAM and flash is the main system memory. It’s placed on the protected (memory) side of the bus, not on the PCMCIA side. Flash is where we store user information that’s not dependent on the unit’s batteries. We laid out the logic circuit board to use as little as 1 Mbyte of DRAM and 2 Mbytes of flash. Should there be customer demand, we may go to other configurations. We’re shipping 4 Mbytes of flash.

The other configuration became the MessagePad 2100. The MessagePad 2000 may have been the first MessagePad developed with expandability in mind. Since the MessagePad 2100 was released just six months later with the full 8 MBs of RAM, I am curious why Apple didn’t go with the larger memory space to begin with.

The unit has a unique subminiature connector. What is it and what does it do?

It’s called the Newton interconnect. Originally we tried to fit an 8-pin DIN in there, but weren’t happy with the impact it had on our low-profile enclosure. Don Porter, our mechanical engineer, chose a 16-pin JAE Electronics (Irvine, Calif.) connector that was more suitable.

We added enough pins to it so a user would be able to use a communications device and a keyboard simultaneously, as well as providing charging power-in and peripheral power-out. That way, customers vertically integrating the unit could add meaningful backpack electronics. We ended up with 26 pins. JAE customized it for us.

Before there was the 30-pin Dock Connector, Lightening, Thunderbolt, or USB Type-C, there was the Newton Interconnect. Personally I wish they had stuck with the 8-pin DIN, much more durable. But the Newton Interconnect offered expandability no found in earlier MessagePads.

You can rotate the screen for vertical or horizontal views. Horizontal’s good for a Web page, but vertical’s better for filling out a form. Software takes care of that. The software also gives two horizontal and two vertical presentations. That was done so extended PC Cards that might have antennas or dongles hanging out of them wouldn’t get in the way of the screen.

We also put key controls to the left and right so the MessagePad accommodates left- or right-handed users. We took the button bar that was silk-screened on the original Newton and put it in software. Users can now change what they want on it. That’s also good for licensees that want a customized user interface for vertical applications.

The MessagePad 2000 was the first Newton you could rotate the screen using software. Perfect for southpaws like me, the MessagePad 2000’s dock would be placed on either the left or right of the screen, and because it was all done in software the dock could be altered to meet the user’s particular preference.

We also designed-in a full-size pen. Most PDAs have very thin styli or telescoping pens–people tend to play with them. We wanted a full-size stylus, but we had to fight for space for it.

We also put a real loudspeaker in, not a piezo speaker. A lot of work went into the 16-bit audio subsystem behind it. It actually runs GSM cellphone compression routines. Several compression engines permit high-quality voice at a low bit rate. That’s handled in realtime using only about 2% of the StrongARM’s processing resources.

No expense was spared adding features that would differentiate the MessagePad 2000 from other PDAs and help it compete with full-featured laptops.

History of the Dogcow

Mark ("The Red") Harlan explains:

The dogcow was originally a character in the Cairo font that used to ship with the Macintosh; it was designed by Susan Kare. I had always been interested in this critter ever since I first saw it in the LaserWriter Page Setup Options dialog, sometime during my stint in Apple's Developer Technical Support (DTS) group in 1987. To me it showed perfection in human interface design. With one picture it was very easy to explain concepts like an inverted image or larger print area that otherwise would be nearly impossible to communicate.

His interest soon became an obsession that culminated in the infamous Technote #31, Dogcow clothing, The Official Dogcow Website, and a Clarus flag flying over one of the departments at Apple. You can read more about Mark's obsession with Clarus in History of the Dogcow part one, and part two.

Russians to the Rescue

In 1990, before the first MessagePad was even announced, things were looking bleak for the Newton group. Newton had a big doubter in executive vice president and corporate secretary Albert Eisenstat. He was convinced that near-perfect handwriting recognition was crucial to public acceptance of Newton, and Apple didn't have it. That's when the Russians came to the rescue.

A group of programmers in Moscow had written to an Apple engineer they knew, describing some handwriting recognition software they had developed for reading the addresses on envelopes and inquiring if Apple wanted to look at it. The engineer, knowing Eisenstat was interested in the Soviet Union, sent the letter to him.

A few months later in 1990, when Sculley and Eisenstat were getting ready for a trip to meet with top officials in the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, Tesler suggested they look up the programmers. They did, and although their software wasn't all that good, a Russian-speaking Apple engineer along on the trip concluded the ideas they had were sound.

Apple agreed to hook up with the programmers, who called themselves Paragraph, and Eisenstat dropped his major objection. Eventually, the Paragraph software became the heart of Newton's handwriting recognition system.

Soviet technology made Newton possible.