In the fall of 2000, I signed up for a fledgling online auction site called eBay. I wanted to find a relatively obscure piece of Apple Computer kit I’d always wanted, called a Newton MessagePad. I didn’t quite understand how eBay worked, so I offered the maximum I’d be willing to pay on 6 different listings… it was probably a full hour before I realised I’d just committed to buying 6 Newtons! Fortunately, I was out-bid on 5 of them, and only had to pay for one.
Nonetheless, I was a proud owner of a Newton MessagePad 120 — proud, that is, until I learned about the MessagePad 2100. The grand-father of portable computing, killed off in its prime by Steve Jobs in his return to Apple Computer in 1997, the Newton remains an audacious and ambitious piece of computing history.
In 2002, after saving up, I managed to get my hands on an upgrade MessagePad 2000 and began my first experiments with wireless networking and different kinds of after-the-fact hacks and expansions to the long-dead platform. An impressive community of hobbyists had sprung up to keep Newton alive, adding Bluetooth, Wifi, MP3 playing and web surfing. It may have been my first experience in coaxing new usefulness out of abandoned hardware.
I didn’t do much for the community, but I did talk about it a lot — on this very home grown website, and other early-Internet forums. Enough, I guess, that a writer for Wired Magazine found me and scheduled an interview for an upcoming article in his series about the culture of Apple fans. That article appeared a couple months later, and you can still find it if you search the right keywords.
18 years later, that article got me invited to speak at a Worldwide Online Newton Users Conference. Turns out there’s still interest in the little green machine, and more than 70 nerds were gathering online to share their recent hacks, collections and uses for Newt. Of the participants in attendance were some of the original Newt dev team, a well-known tech journalist, and the remaining co-founder of Apple Computers, Steve Wozniak.
Steve was mostly a silent observer — in fact, at first we weren’t quite sure it was really him. At the outset, I challenged the participant bearing his moniker to turn his camera on and prove it. I’m sure we were all delighted when the real deal himself appeared and shared his memories of Newton. He receded back into silence until we had a break. As other participants shut their cameras off to attend to biological needs, I decided to go for broke:
“Is Woz still on?” I asked
A couple seconds of silence…
“Yup! I’m here! I’ve been here listening the whole time!”
“Would you be willing to take a few questions?”
“Absolutely!” says the fabled millionaire, as his camera springs back to life.
He held court with us for 20 minutes. I asked a series of off-the-cuff questions to start the impromptu interview, mostly about nerdy things, but we also talked about teaching kids computers, Covid-19, and travel. After a few minutes I yielded the floor so other participants could pile on. It ended too quickly and Woz remained a silent participant for the rest of the event, but it sure was cool! He’s remarkably down to earth — just one of the nerds, who likes experimenting with technology and talking about his passions. In fact, that’s how Apple started.
They’re mostly just memories, as this event will be in a couple years. But don’t ever doubt the power of technology — and community — to have an impact on people’s lives. The Newton community made a documentary on just that, and its worth watching.