The mysterious case of the dummy Newton MessagePad

Don't be fooled by this relic, no matter how real it looks.

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Christopher Phin

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Shown above is an Apple product which I’m willing to bet every single person reading this $100 they’ve never seen before—and a thousand bucks they’ve never touched. OK? You wanna take me up on that?

Sorry, I’ve been a bit naughty; bets are off. You might have thought you were onto a good thing there at first glance. It’s just a Newton MessagePad, yeah? Somewhat rare, but hardly unheard of, right?

Wrong. They’re actually wooden dummy models of the Newton MessagePad, but official Apple products nevertheless.

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(And if you’re thinking, “Aha! Screw you, Phin! I have seen and touched those—cough up!” then I’d use all my winnings from everyone else to pay you gladly.)

They’re quite fantastic as objects. They really mess with your head if you’re already familiar with the MessagePad, in part because they’re just so light—around 7 ounces or 200 grams; basically the same as an iPhone 6s Plus—and yet they’re the same dimensions and volume as a real MessagePad. It just feels peculiar and wrong in your hand, though it’s interesting to wonder how different the MessagePad would have been to use had they actually been as light as this.

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It also just plain sounds odd. Because it’s a block of carved and painted wood, if you knock it or tap it, it doesn’t sound anything like you expect from a piece of technology. And make no mistake: Because it’s so nicely detailed, you expect it to be a piece of technology.

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Even the flap for the ports at the bottom is sculpted, as well as the stylus held in its slot in the side, although of course it’s all just a single, unarticulated block of wood. You can’t remove the stylus or open the port; it’s a solid, unbroken surface.

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So, where did these come from, and what were they for? Well, I haven’t been able to find out for sure. The most likely explanation is the banal one: that they’re demonstration models used for retail and marketing, just like how you see dummy phones in stores today designed to let people get an idea for how a unit looks and feels, but without risking big losses to theft. (Contrast this to today, where Apple is manufacturing products based on full iOS devices simply as display stands for the Apple Watch.)

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And that’s backed up by what my friend Keith, who gave them to me, says. You see, the other, more thrilling explanation for where they came from is that they were given out at the rally to save the Newton program from being axed on Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. This, though doesn’t quite add up because these existed—and Keith remembers being given them—before that rally took place. Besides, they’re mock-ups of a model—possibly the Original MessagePad, or possibly the MessagePad 100, and 100 shiny Internet points to you if you can tell me the difference in the comments below—that had already been discontinued and superseded by that point.

Another explanation is that they were prototypes made late in the development of the MessagePad—that’s the explanation given by an eBay seller quoted around the 9-minute mark in this episode of RetroMacCast—but that strikes me as wildly unlikely; they seem too finished and too presentable, with their (probably) silk-screened graphics and fake screen, to be part of a prototype program.

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And can we take a moment, finally, to look at that screen? Not only is the physical thing pleasingly low-fi, but everything about what’s happening on it reeks so wonderfully of the era.

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The note reads, and I’ve had to infer a couple of blanks, “Jane, This can’t wait. I thought your presentation was extremely convincing. I am putting you in charge of sales for the Western region. I’ll be back in the office on Thursday. Congratulations! -V” There’s a sketched org chart with good old Vikki on top and a newly-promoted Jane joining Bob (Southern region) and Greta (Northern region) as her trusty lieutenants. How fabulous. How ’90s. Jet-setting CEO is out of the office, but promoting a feisty young upstart just can’t wait till she returns, so she dashes off a missive on her Newton MessagePad and faxes (faxes!) it off to said feisty young upstart, who will presumably down a Jeroboam of Dom Pérignon while listening to Carly Simon on her 6-CD auto-changer hi-fi, all while secretly coveting Vikki’s jet-setting lifestyle and plotting a bloodless coup.

I’ve never loved a block of painted wood so much since I was in kindergarten.

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