Newton OS running on an iPad mini is perhaps the ultimate form factor for the ill-fated, pen-based computing pioneer.
Newton OS running on an iPad Mini 6 paired with an Apple Pencil is mesmerizing. As software it’s crisp, bright, precise, and snappy. Combined with the hardware though, it’s thought provoking. This is the ultimate Newton.
Arguably, Apple’s latest, littlest iPad is the ideal form for digitally creating with a pen, and the ubiquity with which we are now surrounded by wireless data means that no one has to wonder if such a device is useful. “What would I use it for?” The question the Newton struggled to answer in the pre-wifi 90s, has been replaced, for many, by the savvier, “is this the best form factor for what I need to create?”
With the software now essentially unconstrained by hardware due to 25 years of technological advancement, where does that leave the Newton OS? Well, I’ll get that out of the way quickly: It really is the best Newton experience ever. Can your workflow exist solely on this emulated Newton? Maybe not, but there are hobbyists making it happen for themselves.
I was lucky enough to attend the Worldwide Newton Conference Online in December, which pulled together a mix of original Newton creators — like Walter Smith and Larry Yeager who were each key creators of the Newton software experience, and Sandy Benett the Apple VP who headed the Newton, Inc. team — and hobbyist creators that are keeping the spirit alive by documenting history, modding hardware, and extending software.
The Einstein project, which is what I have running on the iPad, really grabbed my attention. The emulation project, originally created by Paul Guyot and extended to platforms such as iOS by Mattias Melcher, is largely possible because the Newton software had to be designed without knowing what hardware it would run on — even the Newton’s CPU changed while the software was being written. (As an aside, the Newton end up using one of the very first “ARM” chips, from which the chip in the iPad is a descendent.)
Also, there was a requirement that vendors would be able to license the Newton ROM to build their own hardware with different specifications. To achieve this, Newton OS is coded in C++ and the Newton ROM contains a ROM Extension, or “REx,” which contains drivers. By leaning on an original Newton ROM and providing a new REx with drivers for modern computing platforms, the Einstein emulator is possible without “understanding or reverse engineering any of the peripherals,” as the authors say. Guyot gives the example that he was able to write a driver for the audio without any knowledge of the audio hardware used in the Newton MessagePad hardware.
For supporters, I’ll go step-by-step at how to get Einstein running on your iPad — though the Einstein wiki is fabulous — offer some side-by-side comparison videos, then wrap up thinking about limitations and next steps.