TechnologyTell

Apple’s Newton eMate 300 was an iPad and MacBook Air forerunner

Sections: Discontinued Products, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Originals

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Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch weren’t Apple’s first venture into ARM-powered system-on-chip mobile touchscreen computing. Nearly 16 years ago in March, 1997, Apple released the eMate 300—a non-Mac clamshell laptop with an ARM processor running Apple’s Newton 2.1 PDA system software.

eMate

Marketed only through Apple’s education channels and selling for $799 (at a time when the entry-level Mac PowerBook 3400c started at $4,500 less-inflated 1997 dollars), the eMate was pitched as a low-cost laptop computer for children, and it remains nominally the least expensive laptop Apple ever made. Although, adjusted for inflation, both the entry-level 11″ MacBook Air and the stripped-down education only 13″ MacBook Air, both at $999, are now cheaper.

The eMate’s targeted user demographic helped explain the peculiar, somewhat toy-like styling of its translucent aquamarine and black plastic enclosure. Incidentally, the eMate was also Apple’s first colored computer, preceding the original Bondi Blue iMac by more than a year.

eMate was powered by a 25 MHz ARM 710a processor with 8 MB of ROM, 1MB of RAM and 2MB of flash memory for document storage. It also had a PC Card (PCMCIA) expansion slot for Type I, Type II, or Type III PC Cards for adding Ethernet or a modem, IrDA-beaming capabilities, and a Newton InterConnect port for multiple connectivity options. The eMate’s 480 x 320 resolution 16-shade grayscale backlit LCD touchscreen display could be used either Newton PDA style with a stylus, or laptop-style with the device’s built-in conventional keyboard, and came bundled with a suite of built-in software applications including a word processor, drawing program, spreadsheet, graphing calculator, address book, and calendar functions. It could run hundreds of applications that had been developed for Newton 2.0.

The eMate also had TCP/IP capabilities for Internet and email access. Measuring 2.1 (H) x 11.4 (W) x 12.0 (D) inches and weighing in at four pounds, the eMate was heavier than today’s crop of thin MacBooks and PC Ultrabooks, but lighter than contemporaneous subnotebook PowerBook Duos and PowerBook 2400s. Battery life was claimed to be a whopping 24 Hours—something no iPad or Mac device has ever come close to matching. Another area where the eMate was superior to today’s iPads—or for that matter MacBook Airs and Retina MacBook Pros—is that it had slots for upgrading software, the operating system, and memory.

Apple envisioned the eMate 300 as a perfect companion to Mac or PC computers in classrooms or at home. The serial port, Newton InterConnect Port, and PC Card slot made it easy to print, share, and backup work done on the eMate 300. TCP/IP capabilities gave students access to materials on the Internet, and let them send and receive email so they could conduct research and keep on top of lessons. With its built-in infrared technology, the eMate 300 enabled educators and students “beam” work to one another for quick, easy file sharing. Students could also share data and files created on the eMate with both Mac OS and Windows computers. By doing preliminary work on the eMate 300 and then enhancing it on a desktop computer, students could use the eMate 300 as a companion to desktop or laptop computers—a lot like many iPad users do today.

Unfortunately, eMate was handicapped by limitations of computing power and the Newton operating system, but it’s tantalizing to speculate what it would’ve been like running the iOS. It was also a product of the “beleaguered” Gil Amelio era at Apple, and when Steve Jobs returned in 1997 as part of the NeXT OS purchase that was to become OS X and the iOS, he decided Apple should concentrate on its core product at the time—the Mac—and Newton products were summarily discontinued, the eMate 300 less than a year after it debuted.

However, the eMate 300 was in many ways ahead of its time, and in a very real sense was a conceptual ancestor of both the MacBook Air, the iPad, and Ultrabooks, to say nothing of the flash-in-a-pan PC netbook fad.

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  • Steve W

    The Newton Messagepad was Apple’s first Arm device. Like the later Messagepad 100, and the eMate, the Messagepad required a stylus. The iPhone was a departure from the Newton family of devices, rather than a descendent.

    The newtons did not have Wi-Fi, or any other way to access the internet. They did not have cameras, and they did not have microphones. Steve jobs cancelled the Newton product line, and it took Apple ten years to develop its replacement. That is not my definition of forerunner.

  • nik

    I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for returning my emate demo machine to Apple ATG. I could have just kept it, nobody would have noticed, or cared. But no…
    It wasn’t really all that useful but it was certainly novel.

    A forerunner to the MBA and iPhone? Not really, or you could say, sure, but then again everything Apple did was a forerunner to the iPhone. They’ve had tablets in their labs for over 10 years. They just never released them before the tech was in place to make the iPhone, and at that point in time they needed a phone much more than a tablet.

    I don’t mean this in a cynical way – Apple *always* and from the very first motherboard out of Steve Job’s garage wanted to make computers that are accessible to the masses. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad are the first devices where they have truly succeeded. Mac OS was always a little nicer than Windows but it was never a true mass market computer system – it’s too complicated for that.

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