2016 in review

Overall I’m glad to be leaving 2016 behind, as it wasn’t a particularly great year. However, as far as vintage computing goes, I can’t complain at all.

State of the vintage Macs

My smallish collection of vintage Macs had a good year. Touching wood, the older group of beige Macs — SE, SE/30, Classic, Colour Classic, LCII, Performa 630CD, Power Macintosh 9500 — hasn’t manifested any faults or new issues after the latest check-up. Sadly, yet another power supply in the DuoDock II has failed, and I still haven’t had the time to take care of the problems afflicting the Quadra 950. A minor problem has just occurred with the Power Mac G4 — its internal hard drive is on its way out, only managing to complete the boot occasionally and with effort. Repetitive mechanical noises during the boot process are a certain sign that it’s failing. (If you have a spare IDE drive in good health, of at least 60 GB capacity, please let me know.)

As for the older Mac laptops, the PowerBook 1400 with upgraded G3/333 processor remains my most used portable Mac of the pre-PowerBook G3 era. It has a bright display, a fantastic keyboard, and it’s the quickest machine to take out when I have to check old media (it has a floppy module, a ZIP 100 module, and a CD-ROM module, so it’s easy to just insert the one I need and get going), or when I have to pass files from one vintage media to another when I need to perform some kind of data retrieval.

The PowerBook 5300 still works fine, but opening and closing the lid has become really problematic due to cracks in the hard plastic of the display assembly near the hinges, so I’m using this Mac only occasionally. One day maybe I’ll get a better display assembly on eBay and fix this issue, but as you can imagine, it’s not exactly one of my top priorities.

The ‘new’ PowerBook Duo 280c (generously donated to me in February 2015) is working fine and I’m using it mainly as a font database server and as a very portable solution to download and manage the photos taken with the QuickTake 100.

Speaking of Macs of more recent vintages, my four most used PowerPC Macs in 2016 have been:

  • The 12-inch 1 GHz PowerBook G4 — still my lightest, most dependable machine when out and about. I’ve used it for writing, email, Web, some image editing and even for watching videos and movies when I was on holiday last August.
  • The 17-inch 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 — It’s the fastest, most capable G4 I have, and I use it for pretty much the same things I use the 12-inch for, but when I either need a bigger screen or power is more important than portability. It also has a reliable CD-DVD burner, and it’s a great Mac for exchanging files with various different sources, since it’s equipped with two USB 2 ports, a FireWire 400 and a FireWire 800 port, and a PCMCIA card slot (I use a PCMCIA CompactFlash adapter to quickly exchange files between this PowerBook and the PowerBook 1400, for example).
  • The Power Mac G4 Cube — Always a trusty sidekick, it remains on the left of my main MacBook Pro desktop setup, and its big 22-inch Cinema Display is great for checking additional pages on the Web and my RSS feeds, for performing the occasional image editing, running older applications in the Classic Environment (including games), and it’s also been my scanning workstation for almost 10 years now (I own a 15-year old Canon USB flatbed scanner that has always worked reliably, and its Mac OS 9 drivers and management software are still a tried-and-trusted solution, so why fix what’s not broken?)
  • The 17-inch iMac G4 — Donated to me almost a year ago, it has proved to be another workhorse. It’s a bit of an all-purpose machine (again, I use it for writing, checking RSS feeds, email, browsing the Web, burning CDs and DVDs for archival purposes (its SuperDrive is quite reliable), and it’s also a great Mac for listening to music (local audio files in iTunes, audio CDs, Spotify) thanks to the Apple Pro Speakers delivering a surprisingly rich and powerful sound.

Other Mac laptops (the two clamshell iBooks, the PowerBook G3/400 ‘Lombard’, the two Titanium PowerBook G4) have been used more sporadically, but they still work just fine considering they’re 16/17-year-old machines. I’ll say, the blueberry iBook G3/300 still manages to make heads turn when I use it in some coffee shop or in a library. The battery of one of the Titanium PowerBooks still lasts approximately 2 hours and a half, and I know it’s not much in the era of MacBook Airs that last more than 12 hours on a single charge, but I find it impressive nonetheless, given that that battery is at least ten years old. I still use the TiBook(s) when I want a fast Mac OS 9 machine on the go, or to use some OS 9 and OS X applications and dictionaries whose licences are tied to a specific computer.

iOS devices

Okay, normally this wouldn’t be the place to talk about iOS devices, but considering the fast pace at which both iOS hardware and software are moving, all iOS devices in my collection are vintage tech now, so they’re worth mentioning. I have:

  • A 32 GB iPhone 5 (current main device), a 16 GB iPhone 4, a 16 GB iPhone 3GS and a 16 GB iPhone 3G. All working except the 3GS.
  • A 64 GB fourth-generation iPod touch, a 32 GB third-generation iPod touch, and a 16 GB first-generation iPod touch. All working.
  • A 32 GB third-generation iPad (Wi-Fi only), working very well, with a battery that still manages to last almost 2 days on a charge.

The iPhone 5 and the iPad 3 are my main devices, and the reason I’ve been accumulating other vintage iOS devices is that I’m working on a small book on iOS and I need to have working devices with different iOS versions installed. So far, I have iOS 3 to iOS 10 covered, except for iOS 8. On a practical level, these older devices still retain a degree of usefulness. They’re all still great for listening to music, or even podcasts; or for playing old games or using old apps that still serve a purpose. The iPhone 3G is still in use as my secondary phone, and the iPhone 4 is perfect as a personal hotspot when I visit my parents in Italy and need to use yet another SIM with a great data plan to connect to the Internet.

Newton devices

My Original MessagePad, MessagePad 2100, and eMate 300 are all still in use, but I’ll admit I’ve been only using the MessagePad 2100 on a regular basis in 2016. And sadly I’m in the process of cleaning this unit after discovering that the last batch of alkaline cells I put into it leaked, and leaked badly. The MessagePad 2100 is my true digital notebook, it’s always by my desk when I need to take some notes that a) I know won’t get lost, and b) I can just naturally write down in longhand instead of typing on the relatively small iPhone virtual keyboard. I know it may sound quirky or quaint, or perhaps even cumbersome, but bear in mind I’ve been using a Newton MessagePad since mid-2001 — that’s a lot of time, fine-tuning, and muscle memory; note taking on a Newton is very easy and handy for me.


Not long ago, I received an email out of the blue from someone who plainly asked me: How do you manage all that, all those machines and devices? It must be exhausting. Two or three years ago, for a brief period, I experienced a sort of crisis due to ‘vintage tech saturation’, for lack of a better expression. A few of my vintage Macs had developed a series of issues at the same time, and I felt overwhelmed, because I wanted to fix everything but had no time to do so. I started thinking that the fun of tinkering with vintage technology kind of vanishes when it all become a maintenance game. I was weary and stressed and for a moment I even considered the idea of selling or throwing all away and embrace tech minimalism. Of course I didn’t go through with it. When you have a collection of aging vintage machines and devices, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t take care of everything all the time, especially if, like me, you have a family, a job (translating/localising), a vocation (writing fiction), and other things you’re equally passionate about (photography).

So you just take it easy. You maintain these machines and devices the best you can, focussing on those you feel you rely on the most, and addressing issues one at a time when they surface. Thankfully, Macs are especially long-lasting, dependable computers, and in the end the real problems a G3 or G4 laptop may present, for instance, all revolve around hard drives, optical drives and batteries. I always try to look for spares when I have some time because I know these are the weakest spots for aging laptops. It’s a bit like having always fresh backups in case of emergency. Still, sometimes I’m caught by surprise — like with the Power Mac G4’s hard drive failure — and I have to wait a bit before I can take care of it.

As a final note, I continue to be amazed at what these 13-to-17 year old Macs can still do (provided you have a clear idea of their limits today and adjust your expectations accordingly). Given the current lukewarm interest Apple seems to display towards the Mac, it feels oddly reassuring to be surrounded by older yet reliable Macs and Mac OS software with which I still can carry out a certain amount of tasks rather effortlessly.


Not that everything was great with Palm devices, either

Netwon and WorkPad

Commenting on the final part of this article by Landon Dyer, where Dyer talks about the reasons the Newton failed compared to the Palm Pilot, Thomas Brand writes:

One of the miracles of the Palm Pilot was the reliability and ease of use of the out-of-box HotSync. The Newton came with a lot of features advertised on its box, faxing, beaming, emailing, and placing phone calls, but often those tasks were obstructed by the purchase of additional hardware and the required complication of the day.

I won’t discuss the reasons Dyer enumerates; he was a Newton developer, so his insights have certainly more value than mine. I’m just a Newton enthusiast who discovered the Newton ‘posthumously’ in 2001 and I’m still using it daily. I’m not finding particularly difficult doing stuff with my MessagePad 2100, my Original MessagePad and my eMate 300, but that’s probably because I’m using a few tools developed after the Newton was discontinued.

What I wanted to say is that — from the admittedly limited experience I’ve had with a Palm Pilot device of the same vintage — I just don’t understand how Palm users back then could put up with one drawback that strikes me (Newton user) as huge: non-persistent memory.

A few years ago I was kindly donated an IBM WorkPad 30X (which is a rebadged Palm IIIx). As you can see above and in this Flickr album I created back then, its size compared to a Newton MessagePad 2000 makes it a clear winner in portability. When I received this gift, being unfamiliar with Palm PDAs, I did some research and started looking for apps and software to make the most of the little guy. Along with the WorkPad I was also given a cradle to connect/sync with a Windows PC, so I installed HotSync and the Palm Desktop software on an old Toshiba Satellite I use when I need to connect legacy devices. I put some fresh AAA batteries in the WorkPad and started fiddling around with it for a while. I admit I liked (and still like) the WorkPad’s form factor and its well-balanced stylus.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a regular Newton user since 2001 and I’m accustomed to how the Newton handles handwriting recognition, but learning Palm’s Graffiti system was hard. It felt awfully slow and frustrating while writing, and I never got better or faster at it. A few weeks without using the WorkPad were enough to have to re-learn Graffiti, or at least to re-acquire the speed I had gained before with some training.

But imagine my surprise when one afternoon, while I was out, the batteries in the WorkPad died, and after purchasing new ones on the fly, I found out that all the new applications I had installed and all the notes I had entered were gone. I naïvely thought that the WorkPad would behave like my Newtons and store such information safely in the event of battery failure. Now, not all was lost. I soon discovered that it was enough to connect the WorkPad to the computer and launch a HotSync session. The software correctly restored everything as it was — at the time of the last sync, of course. So not exactly everything.

This however means that if you brought the WorkPad / Palm IIIx with you on a trip (or other Palm devices characterised by the same non-persistent memory feature), you should either make sure you put powerful, long-lasting batteries in it, or bring the computer along to constantly keep things in sync. This strikes me as a bit impractical, and when that first incident happened, I was surprised at how the WorkPad and similar Palm devices were/are so dependent on a frequent, constant connection with the computer. Thankfully the Palm Desktop software is indeed very good and reliable (even the Windows version I’m using). Newtons may have less efficient sync procedures, or it may be more cumbersome to extract information from a Newton device, but I find Newtons to be more reliable and more self-sufficient PDAs. I can see the appeal a smaller, cheaper device may have had back then, but — though I’m certainly biased here — I’m not sure I understand how Palm users put up with devices so prone to potential data loss (unless duly babysat), and so dependent on syncing software and a computer. I guess Palm had a different approach to what ‘personal digital assistant’ meant, and its devices were to be considered just handy portable instruments to store information in a more transient way. Newtons have always felt more like ‘portable computers’ to me.

30 years of the Mac: my personal celebration

On my main website, I’ve published a small contribution, a personal way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Mac:

In case you didn’t notice, the Mac turns 30 today. Apple has created a fantastic mini-site to celebrate this milestone. I wanted to celebrate in my own way, going down memory lane with a bunch of photos of the Macs in my collection, the majority of which still work today.

Continue reading: Celebrating 30 years of the Mac

A little something to remember Mike Culbert

This morning I read on TUAW that “Mike Culbert, a longtime Apple hardware engineer, has passed away after battling cancer. […] His contributions include numerous patents for many iPhone and iPad innovations, we now take for granted. […] He was also a key player on the Newton development team.”

I want to pay my respects by unearthing a 1997 interview that originally appeared in Portable Design Magazine and was published at this link, which now appears to be dead. A few years ago I saved the article after it was briefly discussed on the NewtonTalk list.

Here’s the article, called PDAs: a study in contrasts.

From: Portable Design Magazine
Original link: http://pd.pennnet.com/Articles/Article_Display.cfm?Section=Archives&Subsection=Display&ARTICLE_ID=52439

PDAs: a study in contrasts

Portable Design interviews David Austin, director of engineering, Mike Culbert, systems architect, and Don Porter, mechanical engineer, at the Newton Systems Group (Cupertino, Calif.).

Alex Mendelsohn, Editor-in-Chief

* * *

PD: How did the MessagePad 2000 rise from the ashes of the original Newton?

Culbert: 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.

PD: How did you come to use the Cirrus Logic (Fremont, Calif.) Voyager chipset instead of the custom silicon used in the original Newton?

Culbert: We wanted a new chipset to expand the level of integration and eliminate jelly-bean parts.

PD: Did it let you make the unit physically smaller?

Culbert: 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. Since we needed a chipset, we decided to offer our PDA experience to Cirrus.

PD: Did Cirrus know you were going to use the Digital Semiconductor (Austin, Texas) StrongARM SA-110 processor?

Culbert: None of us knew we were going to use it when we started out. It didn’t exist. We were instrumental in its creation. We had this great architecture from Advanced RISC Machines (ARM – Los Gatos, Calif.), which was suited for Digital’s low-power process. Digital agreed, and we went from there.

That was totally independent of the Voyager chipset. The MessagePad 2000 design was already under way using an ARM710 microprocessor. However, once we had StrongARM silicon in hand, it became clear it was a viable alternative.

Very late in the StrongARM development game we did find a serious bug in the chip’s memory-management unit when handling permission violations. It took us and Digital’s engineers about a week to nail it down. What was astounding was that Digital delivered new silicon in less than four weeks.

PD: You were developing two microprocessor architectures for one end product?

Culbert: Yes, and 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.

PD: That must’ve really complicated software development.

Culbert: It sure did. We had to support concurrent development and ended up building a lot of prototypes. It was an administrative headache to keep these platforms running in parallel and to make sure people had all their development needs met. But, our strategy was to stay on our time-to-market schedule and retain the opportunity to move to what we felt was the appropriate processor. If we couldn’t make it work with the StrongARM, we wouldn’t lose delivering the MessagePad on schedule. But, things did work. The Newton v2.1 operating-system software ran well.

PD: Were there technical aspirins to lessen the headaches?

Culbert: 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.

PD: Did you build in any special hooks to do that?

Culbert: Yes. We made sure the StrongARM and the Voyager included hardwired software-readable version registers. These were incremented on each version of the silicon to dynamically track low-level bug fixes and work-arounds.

For complex bugs it’s handy to observe what’s happening with a logic analyzer. We have a Hewlett-Packard (Loveland, Colo.) Model 16500B for state and timing analysis, but almost never use it during hardware development. I wrote an ARM disassembler for the H-P so we could look at traces of assembly code as it’s fetched. But I often felt that if I couldn’t debug my hardware with my trusty four-channel digital storage ’scope, it couldn’t be debugged!

We also used Geoport – an Apple protocol – for our internal debugging environment. It’s a high-speed protocol that uses SDLC framing at the low level but with a synchronous serial clock. It uses what would normally be hardware handshaking pins for the clock. Geoport let us use production-level system hardware and debug our ROM code using a Mac-hosted debugger.

PD: How did you hammer out the Voyager chipset specs?

Culbert: We spent about a year working with Cirrus on that. We created a common document and Cirrus implemented its chipset to that spec.

PD: Does the Voyager CL-PS7010 standard-cell ASIC handle SDLC and Geoport?

Culbert: Yes. It’s all in hardware.

PD: Why didn’t you use off-the-shelf SDLC/HDLC chips such as the industry-standard Zilog Z8530 serial communications controller?

Culbert: We used the 8530 SCC in the original Newton. But our goal now was to integrate as much as possible – for cost reasons. The chip we now have is bigger than we’d hoped for, but it offers significant cost savings over our previous architecture using separate ICs.

PD: Is Cirrus offering these chips to the merchant market?

Culbert: No. The Voyager is available only to Newton licensees.

PD: Does it make the MessagePad 2000 unique?

Austin: It gives us a high degree of differentiation by providing a lot of capability in a small space and with low power.

Culbert: The CL-PS7010 also has a proprietary low-pin-count bus and protocol that talks to the companion CL-PS7030 PCMCIA controller. We wanted to give users the ability to hot-insert and hot-remove PC Cards while the MessagPad 2000 was running. To do this we needed a completely isolated bus, so we came up with this scheme. Thanks to the cascadable CL-PS7030, the product can have as many as four Type II PCMCIA slots using one device per slot, all talking with a multiplexed frame format to the main controller. The bus offers voltage and signal isolation from the main system.

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.

PD: How do you manage the flash array?

Culbert: There’s a flash file system, but not a Microsoft-type FFS. We use a transaction-based object database. It’s very effective for random access to large amounts of data.

Austin: If you put in a flash data card, you want the device to locate that as well as what’s stored in internal flash. The system automatically takes care of things stored in multiple areas – it provides a unified view. The transaction-based object store prevents data loss due to things such as a crash. Housekeeping is handled by the system controller.

PD: How did you engineer the analog interface to the unit’s loudspeaker, microphone, and touchpad?

Culbert: We spent months working with Cirrus-subsidiary Crystal Semiconductor (Austin, Texas) on the analog CL-PS7020 chip. We took a large discrete implementation and reduced board area, cost, and power by integrating it. Crystal brings a lot of patents in the area of sigma-delta modulation to the party. The ’7020 uses a linear single-bit A/D converter that operates in bit-serial fashion.

One of the problems inherent with sigma-delta is its slowness. It’s excellent for audio, but not very good for digitizing tablet signals where there’s electrical noise in the background and you want to detect and remove that noise from your measurement. Cirrus ended up filing four patents on the technique used in the ’7020. We got an A/D that’s speed-comparable to a successive approximation converter using a sample-and-hold, but on a very small piece of silicon – and with no external hold capacitor. It has a 19 micros sampling time.

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

Culbert: 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.

PD: Did you work similarly with other suppliers for customized parts?

Culbert: We worked closely with Maxim Integrated Products (Sunnyvale, Calif.) to enhance its standard products. The Maxim variable-frequency and pulse-width switcher offers efficiency as high as 98%. It helps let the MessagePad work for up to six weeks from four AA cells.

PD: I can audibly hear the electroluminescent backlight switcher oscillating. Isn’t that irritating to users?

Porter: It’s one of our petty annoyances, too. It runs at a fairly low frequency between about 300 Hz and 1 kHz, and any mechanical resonance amplifies that noise. We tried freeing the toroids from the glue that holds them down, but we didn’t have enough room in the enclosure to make them float. We’ve had no customer complaints about the noise, but we’re working to solve it. At least it’s quieter than a hard disk.

PD: What makes the user interface unique?

Austin: 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.

Porter: 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.

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.

Culbert: A big challenge was electrostatic discharge. The mixed-voltage design, where the lowest voltage is 1.6 V, didn’t leave much margin for ESD. So we routed a lot of external signals – including Reset – into general-purpose inputs on the controller to de-bounce them. We actually look for ESD events in software.

We also had to carefully control ground loops from ever seeing the ESD energy. A lot of PC Cards violate the PCMCIA’s specs. Card makers connect the metal structure of a card’s case to ground pins on the connector. That gives a chassis-to-digital-ground short with virtually zero impedance. As you can imagine, in this system, where the end of the card is exposed to the user, that presented a hazard.

We put a copper-foil shield on the PCMCIA slots under the connectors to provide a plane to absorb the energy coming in on a PC Card. We wanted to get the energy off the card before it got to the connector. We went through several iterations of the logic board design as well as the copper foil.

Inside the MessagePad 2000

The MessagePad 2000 uses a 162-MHz StrongARM SA-110 microprocessor coupled with a Cirrus Logic Voyager chipset. The SA-110 dissipates less than 500 mW, delivering 925 Mips/W. DRAM, used for temporary storage during program and system code execution, also provides the heap for a NewtonScript interpreted environment and a C heap, as well as stack and temporary buffer space for serial communications.

The CL-PS7010 packs systems-level glue functions, memory and single-/dual-scan LCD controllers, and serial ports for async and SDLC AppleTalk communications. It can support an external synchronous clock to run Geoport. The CS8130 is an IR transceiver. The CL-PS7020 provides a pen digitizer and touchpad interface, a battery and temperature monitor, audio record and playback, and a clock generator. The CL-PS7030 meets PCMCIA 2.01 specs, supporting hot insertion of 3.3-V and 5-V PC Cards. A 480 x 320-pixel indium-tin-oxide-coated glass touchscreen is used. The LTC1323 is a Linear Technology (Milpitas, Calif.) single-voltage RS-422 line driver.

Although the MessagePad was designed for 100% coverage boundary scan testing, 150 test points were requested by manufacturing. These were added late in the design cycle by carefully going around the Newton’s circuit board – by hand – turning vias into test points.

Newton MessagePad 2000
[Fig. 1] The interior of the Newton MessagePad 2000 reveals conductive-coated EMI/RFI shielding on the unit’s plastic case, relatively uncrowded circuit boards, dual PC Card controller ICs, and a mezzanine board for flash memory.

Austin Culbert Drummond Turnbull
[Fig. 2] Apple’s Newton Systems Group engineering director David Austin (left), confers with systems architect Mike Culbert (standing, rear), hardware designer David Drummond (seated), and engineering manager David Turnbull.

Portable Design – July, 1997

My new vintage mobile office

Since I acquired my first Newton in 2002 — an MP2000 with keyboard and various cards— and then an MP2100 in 2006, I’ve been looking for a proper case for it when I need to carry it around, take notes, and get a few things done. Over the years I’ve tried different solutions, bags, cases, even small backpacks, to accommodate my MessagePad and its keyboard. I had little success, though. Every solution was temporary or good enough to transport the Newton, but what I was really looking for was something more like the Calise Executive Case or the Newton MessagePad Keyboard Carrying Case — i.e. something that would let me use the MessagePad with its keyboard in a ‘laptop’ configuration, so that I could write fairly comfortably whenever I’d go.

I was rather excited, back in February, when someone on the LEM Swap List posted a ‘For Sale’ message with such Newton case, but when I contacted the seller I was disappointed in finding that somebody else beat me to it. A few days later, after venting my frustration on the NewtonTalk List, Paul Z. wrote me an email telling me he was willing to part with his MessagePad and Newton Keyboard Leather Carrying Case for the cost of shipping (to Europe). It was an instant deal, and the best $38 I’ve ever spent on a Newton accessory.

Paul has been a true gentleman. After a few emails, he sent me the case without waiting for me to pay him, and when I received the case I was quite pleased to find inside a stylus (the original stylus for the MP2000/2100, not the colourful plastic ones) and a spare screen cover door. Oh, and this sheet:

Newton Carrying Case sheet
Instructions for MessagePad and keyboard placement

This leather case, as you can see from the picture above, is bigger than the Calise and the other case I linked to. It’s basically a small briefcase, with a handle and a removable shoulder belt. Inside there are a lot of different compartments for documents, pens, etc. It looks quite elegant and luxurious (“Full Grain Genuine Leather” is written on the back). I can’t even imagine how much it cost back in the day when it was brand new.

Well, now I’m pleased to report I have my very own vintage mobile office.

Newton mobile office
Word processing is a breeze...

Newton never dies

Thirteen years ago

CUPERTINO, California – Feb. 27, 1998 – Apple Computer, Inc. today announced it will discontinue further development of the Newton® operating system and Newton OS-based products, including the MessagePad® 2100 and eMate® 300.

“This decision is consistent with our strategy to focus all of our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s interim CEO. “To realize our ambitious plans we must focus all of our efforts in one direction.”

Apple is committed to affordable mobile computing, pioneered by the eMate, and will be serving this market with Mac OS-based products beginning in 1999.

Apple will continue to market and sell its current inventory of MessagePad 2100 and eMate 300 computers, as well as to provide support for their installed base of users. The Company is committed to working with its customers and developers to ensure a smooth transition to Mac OS-based products.



My trusty sidekick

As you can see in this recent photo, a detail of my setup, the Newton MessagePad is still an essential part of my workflow. So, despite its (untimely) cancellation, the Newton is still very useful to me, and to all the Newton users out there, and to those who are curious enough to purchase a used one and give it a try, my message is:

Keep Green and Carry On
Click to enlarge, download it, and spread the word!



iBook to go

According to coconut IdentityCard, my clamshell iBook G3/466 Graphite SE FireWire just turned 10. I haven’t checked, but probably my other blueberry iBook G3/300 is turning eleven as we speak. Ten years is a long time, especially in ‘computer years’ considering the rapid evolution of the technology. Still, my clamshell iBooks get a surprisingly lot of use. That’s why I wanted to properly celebrate them with this post.

Small list of amazing facts

  • I purchased my graphite iBook second-hand in 2002 and, apart from the DVD drive, all the original parts are still there and functioning. I’m especially impressed by the original 10 GB hard drive, considering I’ve been using this iBook a lot, especially from 2002 to 2004 when it was my main work machine.
  • The original battery still holds approximately 45 minutes of charge. I purchased a new battery (a third party model) in 2005, which I swap between the two iBooks when I need the juice, and with this new battery I still get more than five hours of charge (with AirPort turned on, and screen brightness at 80%). Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
  • 5 hours on the iBook

  • My two clamshell iBooks both own the longest uptime record of all the Macs in use in my household: 394 days for the blueberry iBook, 358 days for the graphite iBook.
  • I believe these iBooks are the toughest portable Macs ever built. Possibly the toughest Macs of all time. I didn’t happen to me, luckily, but I witnessed a tangerine iBook being accidentally dropped down a flight of stairs, and after the owner (still in shock) picked it up, everything was working fine and nothing was broken.

Use cases, past and present
So, for what am I still using these humble, yet amazing vintage iBooks? Today, their main uses are essentially three:

  1. Running Mac OS 9 natively. I have a lot of other PowerPC Macs around which can dual-boot and run Mac OS 9, most of them more powerful than the iBooks, but I like to use the iBooks for that because I don’t have to reboot them in OS 9 every time I need it. I usually leave the blueberry iBook in Mac OS 9 and boot it into Mac OS X Panther occasionally. Plus, the iBooks are handy, since they have so long-lasting batteries.
  2. Connecting to the Newtons. Everything is already setup and working flawlessly on the graphite iBook. I use a Keyspan Serial Adapter and the great Newton Connection for Mac OS X (NCX) by Simon Bell to connect and exchange files with my Newtons. The eMate 300 and the iBook look like they’re made for each other, too:
  3. eMate and iBook

  4. As a scanning workstation. See this post for more information.

As regards to the past, I think it’s worth mentioning that my graphite iBook acted as a wireless base station for a long time, while I was saving money to purchase a couple of AirPort Express Base Stations (they were more expensive, then). That little guy was connected to the broadband modem via Ethernet and shared the connection wirelessly for all the other Macs and PCs in my home network. And never missed a beat.

A clamshell-related message I wrote to the Mac OS 9 list a while ago

A couple of months ago, someone in the Mac OS 9 List asked:

I have an orange clamshell and would like to give it internet capabilities. How can I do that?

What follows is my reply, slightly updated. I think it’s worth publishing here, it contains some information which may be useful for the passing System Folder reader:

Other people have replied to this, but to summarise, if you’re on Mac OS 9.2.2 the options are:

  • Ethernet, either via a direct connection to the modem/router, or to another Mac sharing the Internet connection. The TCP/IP Control Panel should be enough to set up a proper configuration.
  • Wireless, via an AirPort card. Its presence can be easily detected by lifting the iBook’s keyboard. As others have pointed out, wireless encryption under Mac OS 9 is limited to WEP.

For browsing the Web under Mac OS 9, I recommend Classilla. It works well in my blueberry clamshell iBook.

I see that in the discussion thread people have mentioned Mac OS X support and performance on these iBooks. Since I own two clamshell iBooks, I thought I could chime in.

To run Mac OS X decently on these iBooks, the first important thing is maxing out the RAM. The second important thing (especially if one wants a dual-boot OS 9/OS X iBook) is replacing the original hard drive with a bigger one – although the procedure is quite the nightmare, since you’ll basically have to dismantle the iBook. Unless you want to go Mac OS X only, in that case, with a minimal installation, you could end up with 1.5 GB of free disk space.

On the blueberry and tangerine iBook G3 — the original models with a 300 MHz processor and no FireWire port — the maximum OS X version you can install is Mac OS X 10.3.9 (Panther). Maximum RAM is 320 MB. [Yes, the actual RAM that can be installed is 544 or 576 MB, basically adding a 512 MB RAM stick to the 32 or 64 MB already on the motherboard, but as I wrote in a later message to the list, since I had some issues with different G3/300 iBooks and 512 MB sticks (as in: RAM not recognised, and yes, the memory stick was fine), I prefer to err on the side of conservativeness.]

On later clamshell iBooks — the Indigo, Key Lime and Graphite line with a 366 or 466 MHz processor and the FireWire port — the maximum OS X version you can install is Mac OS X 10.4.11 (Tiger). Maximum RAM is 576 MB.

I have a blueberry G3/300 iBook with 288 MB RAM and a bare bones installation of both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X (10.3.9), leaving around 700 MB free. Performance is slower under Mac OS X but the iBook is still usable. Since my home wireless network has WPA2 encryption, I usually connect the iBook via AirPort under OS X with no problems. When I have to use Mac OS 9, I just hook the iBook up to my Ethernet switch and the iBook enjoys the shared connection coming from my MacBook Pro.

I also have a graphite iBook G3/466 SE FireWire, with Mac OS X 10.4.11 and 576 MB RAM and Mac OS X Tiger is definitely usable on that iBook. (If replacing the hard drive were easier, I’d put at least a 5400rpm drive in it, since the original 4200rpm drive is dog slow, but I’m digressing).

Anyway, if you’re content either with a wired connection to the Internet or with a wireless connection with low protection, my suggestion is to keep the tangerine iBook a Mac OS 9-only Mac. It’ll definitely feel faster, and you’ll enjoy more free disk space since Mac OS 9 is a more lightweight installation than OS X.

If you want more mobility and the ability to connect to WPA-class WiFi networks, then by all means max out the RAM and install Mac OS X 10.3.9. (Provided, of course, that there’s already an AirPort card present, otherwise you’ll have to look for one — they’re usually fairly cheap on the used market).

Another interesting story
One day, as I was searching the Web for some vintage technology information, I stumbled upon this long article about the many uses for a clamshell iBook. It was written around 2007, but many bits of information are still valid and many points the author makes still agreeable. If you like the subject, also take a look at the page titled A Lot Can Be Done With Just A Little Technology.

My clamshell iBooks are ten years old, but they do feel younger. I still think they’re very handy, very useful machines for a lot of tasks. Over the years, I’ve found their surface and shape to be the best design for typing comfortably and without straining my hands or wrists. The main limitations, in my opinion, are mostly related to the screen estate (800×600 is a little too tiny today) and the presence of a USB 1.1 port (at least the FireWire models have a FireWire 400 port). For some people, they’re slow machines, that’s why I recommend maxing out the RAM and — if you’re courageous enough to venture in the hard drive replacement procedure [PDF] — putting a bigger, faster hard drive.

As for the screen, I might try a daring procedure myself. A dear friend was kind enough to send me the screen assembly and bezel of his otherwise dead iBook G3/700 model, which has a 1024×768 resolution, and I think I’ll try a transplant someday in the future, so that I’ll end up with a 1024×768 clamshell iBook.

As usual, feel free to share stories, experiences, tips, advices, questions related to the clamshell iBooks in the comment section. Long live the clamshells!

John Sculley on the Newton

I’ve read the long, fascinating interview with John Sculley by Leander Kahney at Cult of Mac. (I have also translated the whole transcript into Italian and published it in 3 parts on my Quillink Observer blog). Most of the interview is about Steve Jobs, but I didn’t miss this interesting bit about the Newton. Interesting because I haven’t considered Sculley’s angle on the Newton failure, and the fact that, in a way, the Newton project saved Apple from bankruptcy. I’ve always thought the exact opposite — that the huge money haemorrhage for Newton R&D actually led Apple on the road to ruin. Of course one can say that it’s just Sculley defending his work and his pet project…

Q: People say he killed the Newton – your pet project – out of revenge. Do you think he did it for revenge?

Sculley: Probably. He won’t talk to me, so I don’t know.

The Newton was a terrific idea, but it was too far ahead of its time. The Newton actually saved Apple from going bankrupt. Most people don’t realize in order to build Newton, we had to build a new generation microprocessor. We joined together with Olivetti and a man named Herman Hauser, who had started Acorn computer over in the U.K. out of Cambridge university. And Herman designed the ARM processor, and Apple and Olivetti funded it. Apple and Olivetti owned 47 percent of the company and Herman owned the rest. It was designed around Newton, around a world where small miniaturized devices with lots of graphics, intensive subroutines and all of that sort of stuff… when Apple got into desperate financial situation, it sold its interest in ARM for $800 million. If it had kept it, the company went on to become an $8 or $10 billion company. It’s worth a lot more today. That’s what gave Apple the cash to stay alive.

So while Newton failed as a product, and probably burnt through $100 million, it more than made it up with the ARM processor… It’s in all the products today, including Apple’s products like the iPod and iPhone. It’s the Intel of its day.

Apple is not really a technology company. Apple is really a design company. If you look at the iPod, you will see that many of the technologies that are in the iPod are ones that Apple bought from other people and put together. Even when Apple created Macintosh, all the ideas came out of Xerox and Apple recruited some of the key people out of Xerox.

Everything Apple does fails the first time because it is out on the bleeding edge. Lisa failed before the Mac. The Macintosh laptop failed before the PowerBook. It was not unusual for products to fail. The mistake we made with the Newton was we over-hyped the advertising. We hyped the expectation of what the product could actually, so it became a celebrated failure.

Mission-critical Newton

You’re surely aware of the serious earthquake that struck New Zealand a few days ago. I was concerned for the safety of an active member of the NewtonTalk mailing list, Tony Kan, who lives in Christchurch, so I sent him an email to ask if all was well with him and his family. He replied that they were all fine, and pointed to this post on his blog, in which you can read an intense report of what happened there.

The last paragraphs fascinated and surprised me, because the Apple Newton makes an unexpected appearance:

Guess what was an indispensable tool in the aftermath? My Apple Newton. During the odd quiet moment I could relax by journalling what had happened and then email the updates to friends and family when power and communications were restored.

Broadcasting the updates to family was so much easier with PowerNames by setting them up in a Group. Prior to getting PowerNames the easiest way to do this was sending it to myself and forwarding it using a Distribution List in MS Outlook.

Sent from an Apple Newton MP2100

File this in the “Old technology proves useful one more time” Department. If you’re interested in what’s happening in Christchurch and environs, you should also read Tony’s follow-up, Surviving the Christchurch Aftershocks, another piece “Sent from an Apple Newton MP2100”. And if you’re into this ever-wondrous Apple PDA you must add Tony’s blog to your bookmarks — it’s one of the finest, most updated blogs on the Newton you’ll find around.

(Hang in there, Tony, and all the best!)

The Newton Year 2010 bug: we have another patch!

In May 2009 I was reporting Eckhart Köppen’s great achievement in successfully creating a system patch to solve a nasty bug affecting Newton MessagePads and eMates with NewtonOS 2.x, preventing them from handling dates following January 5, 2010.

Eckhart’s solution — Patch 71J059 for US-language MessagePad 2100s, Patch 73J186 for eMate 300s, Patch 74J185 for German-language MessagePad 2100s — worked well, but had a small side-effect: every time the Newton needed to be reset/rebooted (or did a self-reset on its own, something that happens every now and then when a system error or power loss occurs), the date/time reset as well, going back to January 1, 2008, 12:00 AM. This was a minor glitch that didn’t really bother me, although setting the date and time is not exactly a fast process on the Newton and much tapping is involved. Eckhart said he would look into it, anyway.

And he did. With the help of another hero of Newton development, Paul Guyot, they created another system patch: Patch 711000, which is only compatible with US-language MessagePad 2000/2100s. This patch fixes the “Return to 2008 upon reset” problem mentioned before.

If you want a general overview of the Year 2010 problem on the Newton, read this page, which explains things in more detail. The Patch 711000 page contains additional information about the patch, compatibility notes, installation instructions and troubleshooting.

By the way, if you have a Newton (like an MP120 or MP130) with NewtonOS 2.0, Avi Drissman’s Fix2010 package will work to fix the Year 2010 bug. Eckhart’s patches only target NewtonOS 2.1 devices.

More coverage on the 711000 patch from My Apple Newton, Dave Lawrence’s Newton Poetry, and Morgan Aldrigde’s Makkintosshu blog.

There isn’t much to add, only that I’m extremely grateful to Köppen and Guyot for their work and for keeping the Newton alive and green and living. As a playfully stubborn Newton user myself, I am more and more proud of being part of the Newton community. It might be a small one, but it’s tight and strong. And with achievements like this, we are less of an endangered species!