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Seattle, WA, USA

Posted Fri May 10, 2024 9:03 am

When Apple released the Newton in 1993 they actually coined the term "Personal Digital Assistant" or PDA, which became its own classification of device in the nascent mobile marketplace.

One of the Apple Newton's real problems was its very high price. They were essentially the cost of a computer (because they were computers...).

The Newton was the first to feature handwriting recognition, a stunningly cool feature that was ultimately mocked for not being a perfect experience for new users. The idea was that with the use of a stylus, your handwriting would convert to text on the fly when using the built-in word processor for jotting down notes, or creating calendar events, digital business cards, playing games, crafting emails and more. Through the use of neural networks, the more you used the device the better and more precise the recognition would become. It actually trained itself to your handwriting over time. (Just don’t hand your Newton to a friend and expect it to be flawless anymore.)

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The Newton can convert your handwriting to text - on the fly.

The Newton also created an entirely new software ecosystem where independent developers could create and sell their programs. This software could run on the Newton independently, sync to a Macintosh computer, or even be emailed to anywhere you wanted it to go.

Realizing the sophistication of Apple’s endeavor and the PR nightmare of its early handwriting recognition, competitors like Palm instead forced users to learn a tedious single-stroke shorthand called Graffiti. Users were required to learn a novel writing pattern and compose one character at a time in explicitly precise motions. This concept flipped the model and put the burden on users to train themselves on how to create acceptable characters rather than the other way around.


The truth is you didn’t even have to USE the handwriting recognition software in the Newton if you didn’t want to. At any time you could invoke a software keyboard, use a real physical keyboard, or even sync your Newton to your Mac and use IT’S keyboard. You didn’t have to scribble on the screen if you didn’t want to. But if you merely gave it a shot, within a day or two you’d be stunned at how good it was. And that’s a fact.

Fast-forward to 1997.

The Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 with Newton OS 2.0 delivered even more power and capabilities. Its handwriting recognition was greatly improved, including unique features like modeless error correction not found in any other recognition systems.

But the severe damage had already been done… and the Newton was discontinued. Due to the cultural smear campaigns and admittedly high price, it is estimated that only about 200,000 Newtons were ever sold.

Components of Newton’s handwriting recognition were later quietly folded into the Mac OS X 10.2 “Jaguar” operation system and later as the Mac software Inkwell, or Ink. It was finally discontinued in 2019, only 5 years ago.

In 2024, one of my hands-down favorite modern devices is the reMarkable 2 tablet. This fantastic tablet replaces paper notebooks without sacrificing the feel of paper. It’s superb for taking handwritten notes. I do this on a near-daily basis to keep track of both my work and personal projects. I’ve found it not only helps me stay organized but it actually improves my memory by using a pencil-like device rather than simply typing on a keyboard.

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And you know what else it has? That’s right: handwriting recognition.

And it is simply amazing to me how in 2024 we bend over backwards to not judge it harshly or even really talk about it very much anymore.
One of the coolest features is being able to convert messy handwriting into text so you can share your notes with anybody. While this feature didn’t work flawlessly on my truly indecipherable handwriting, it’s a great addition that sets this device apart.
— Olivia Lipski, Good Housekeeping, Feb 2024
But then there are others, like myself, who remember where all of this really started.

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I personally don’t use the handwriting recognition on the reMarkable. It requires I be on WiFi as well as their cloud for it to even work. I typically leave WiFi off of my tablet because it eats into its otherwise stunningly superb battery life. If I needed to use it, I would do it on an ad-hoc basis in a one-time conversion rather than in real-time. So, yeah, I don’t use it.

But when I do occasionally use it I’ve had so-so results. Sometimes it works insanely well, and sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on how careful I am in how I write on the page and structure things. And frankly, I can’t tell if it actually learns my handwriting like the Newton did.

And do I actually care? No. I love the reMarkable 2 and use it like an endless paper notebook that takes almost no room on my desk. It keeps me focused, provides ZERO distractions, and feels fantastic. The tablet surface and pen options feel like natural media. I love it.

Am I going to attempt to start a campaign to destroy the device because its handwriting recognition is so-so? Why the hell would I? Why would anyone?

Device Comparison

I’m guessing most folks watching this video don’t own either of these devices. Or if you have one, you may not have the other. Before we leave let’s do a quick side-by-side comparison in features just to satisfy everyone’s curiosity even though these devices aren’t really apples to apples.
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Chart 1

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Chart 2

Also worth noting that the Newton has a backlight, which is evident in the video above in several clips, while the reMarkable does not. Again - the reMarkable is as close to being a paper notebook as it can be without actually coming from a tree. And that's a good thing. My 25+ year old Newton's backlight still works, which is very handy, but does produce a noticeable high-pitched sound similar to some old CRT monitors these days. Even my aging ears can hear it. But it's not that bad.


When you cut to the chase, these two devices are pretty night and day.

One is a robust PDA for word processing, note taking and running applications like games, paint programs and networking. It’s sort of the grandfather of the iPad before we knew what the iPad would become. The reMarkable is a very tightly focused tablet that does only a couple of things, but is the industry leader in those things that it does. It provides a distraction-free experience that I truly appreciate.

The Newton, on the other hand, provided an entire platform that offered so much more. Most of those that mocked it and helped to tear it down never even saw a Newton in-person, let alone used one. Had they done so the tide of history might have changed. The fact is it was way ahead of its time, and some could argue ahead of what we have even now in terms of handwriting recognition. Most folks simply didn’t take the time to appreciate it.

Just like another computer platform I’m rather fond of….

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