An Interview with Noah Leon, the Creator Behind the ‘Love Notes to Newton’ Film Project 

Recently, I linked to (and backed) an Indiegogo project named Love Notes to Newton.

It’s by a guy named Noah Leon. Here’s his pitch:

Newton was the first mass-produced touchscreen handheld computer made by Apple. It only lasted a few years on the market (1993 to 1998), but that wasn’t because it sucked! A large community of people still love Newton, and this film is an homage to the little device(s) by the people who still remember and even still use one.

I spent some time with Noah to talk about his work and this project. Our interview is below.

Can you provide some background on who you are, and the project in general?

I am 33 and run a small production company out of Montreal called Moosefuel Media. I have a wife, daughter, and I’ve been wanting to do a personal project about Newton and the Newt community for several years now.

I’m a creative person and the idea of it just captured my imagination and I realized the time is right to make it. The Newton is a line of tablet computers from the 90s which predates the iPad, iPhone, and even the iPod.

It was almost a huge commercial success, and the fact that it was so good but still didn’t make it in the market is a source of angst for us who love it. It drives us to keep it going so we can still enjoy it. It has really amazing software.

I don’t know if people realize it, but Apple helped developed the ARM processor for the Newton line. ARM is what powers nearly all mobile devices today.

So, why the Newton? What makes it special to you?

I think it was just the idea of it which drew me in. It was a different way of looking at computers at the time. Everyone knew that eventually you would have computers you could carry around, and Apple really bet hard that they could pull it off.

As a kid, when our school got Macs, it was a revelation to me that a computer could be used to make art. It started me on the path I am on today.

When I first heard about the Newton it was no different. I was excited by the possibilities of what I could do with it. It wasn’t just a miniaturized Mac or PC; it was a different concept of what a computer should be.

Ultimately it didn’t catch on, but it was excellent technology, especially for the time. It had all the standard apps which we expect on our phones today, but all the apps were integrated. There were no files, just a large database which all apps could store and share data from.

The handwriting recognition used something called Neural networks which is a sort of A.I. It was pretty advanced for the time and to use it was kind of magical.

Why did Apple cancel the product? Was doing so a mistake?

I think cancelling Newton was the right choice ultimately, as painful as it was, from a business perspective.

Apple had been very poorly managed for several years prior to 1998 and they had to cut their losses.

That said, the early 90s was a very creative time for Apple, and some of their most ambitious products came during this time. However, Jobs killed all that when he came back to Apple. The Newton was before its time, and it took Apple until the iPhone to get back into the PDA market (PDA stands for Personal Digital Assistant, a term which Apple coined).

Tell me a little bit about the Newton community today.

I think there are a lot of Apple nuts who still enjoy using their Newtons, or who picked one up years later when they became affordable.

There are also a lot of people who developed software or hardware around the Newton who are still involved. The real core of people who still actively use or tinker with Newtons are active in the newtontalk.net mailing list. Grant Hutchinson in Canada runs the list now.

There are members from Germany, France, New Zealand, the United States and other countries. There is a lot of practical discussion, but also a lot of humor and talk about poutine.

Do you still use one?

I still use it occasionally, but now just for note-taking and todo lists. I used to be a big journaler, and the Newton has a very organic way of working with writing that is enjoyable to me.

What’s the goal of the project? Will the film be made regardless of its outcome?

The goal of the project is partly to tell the story of Newton, but more importantly, I want to tell the stories of the people who keep it going.

Some of these people are heroes to me, but once you get out of the niche, nobody knows who they are. Some of them have really great stories to tell. I also hope to interview some of the people involved with the creation of Newton, to talk about their excitement and what they were thinking in developing this pen-based computer which was really ambitious for 1993 when it came out.

Crowdfunding a project like this is a challenge since it’s very narrow and the people who remember Newton are pretty spread out.

That said, I am committed to making the film regardless, and I think it will be a fun film which everyone will want to watch. I can’t do it without support, but we already have a good base.

The amount of funding which comes through will really affect the production value and the number of people I am able to interview, so the better we do the better the film will be ultimately.

Finally, once the film is finished and all crowdfunding “perks” have been delivered (t-shirts, for example), the profits from the further sale of the film will go to bethematch.org.

Certain kinds of cancer require bone marrow or stem-cell transplants from a compatible donor, but it has to be a very exact match, so I signed up to be a donor to the Canadian chapter after I heard former Mac and Newton developer Steve Capps talk about it at the Computer History Museum.

So once the film is finished and we begin selling it on Vimeo or iTunes, the money will go to a good cause. The film is about Newton but it’s also about people, so I wanted to do something special.