I’m happy to present my short interview with Noah Leon, ‘Love Notes to Newton’ movie director, which I had the opportunity to conduct in March 2018.
Me: Noah, tell something about you…
Noah: I’m a wedding and corporate cinematographer from Montreal, a long-time Mac and Newton user.
From where fascination with the Newtons?
I was a Mac user as a kid at school, and I saw an advertisement in Macworld magazine for the Newton MessagePad 130, it really impressed me that you could hold a full computer in your hand. After that I wanted one so badly that I would pray for one (I was a kid), and one day I saw an original MessagePad listed in the classifieds ads for only $15. I got it, and I was fascinated by the device.
Why Newton? Why not Palm or any other PDA?
The Palm was a good organizer, but the Newton tried to be much more. It tried to let you naturally write. I kept a journal at the time so that was very attractive to me. It tried to be intelligent, the original MessagePad was also a very beautiful device that impressed all my friends.
Why Newton is different from all other PDAs?
The Newton was a device which tried to make it easy for you to create content. They re-branded it as the “MessagePad” for marketing reasons, but originally it was called the “Notepad.” Steve Capps, one of the engineers who worked on Macintosh and Newton told me that their original goal was to only have one app, the Note Pad, and the whole device would be a kind of super-paper. I think I understood the vision, and in later versions (such as the MessagePad 2100) they really achieved this high level of software.
Do you share the opinion that Newton has overtaken his time?
Yes it certainly has outlived its time, but Newton fans keep it going because we recognize how good it was. The Newton pioneered a lot of things which you still cannot find in today’s devices. For example, the file system is a huge database (called a “soup) which allows software to access and modify data from any app. This allowed developers to modify the system software and improve it without Apple’s help.
Why was Newton not accepted on the market?
The main reason was that it was too early. Business people didn’t like it that much, and consumers barely had computers in their homes in 1993. The other reason is that the Newton was over-hyped and under-delivered. James Joaquin, who worked on the Newton’s marketing, told me that it was larger than they thought, slower than they thought, and the handwriting recognition wasn’t as good as they thought. It’s “killer feature” was supposed to be the handwriting recognition, but even the Newton team recognized that it wasn’t ready when they released it, and changed the name to “MessagePad” to promote the communications abilities, which weren’t that good either.
Is it possible to use Newton today? Do you use your Newton? To do what?
It would be hard in today’s world to use a Newton for daily tasks because of the importance of security on the web, and how complex the internet has become. I think the best use of the Newton is for pleasure. My daughter and I have eMates (the Newton clamshell laptop) and we can send pictures and words to each other. It’s better than teaching her to use an iPad because with the Newton, it really is a content-creation device, not a content-consumption device. The focus is on manipulating the computer, not watching videos or playing games.
Your favourite Newton?
My favourite Newton will always be my first love, the Original MessagePad. Even though it wasn’t as good as later ones in terms of software, it really shows the original vision (like the original Macintosh) and is a beautiful device.
From where the whole idea for the film come from?
I first suggested the film on Newtontalk.net in 2009. At the time I had not started my wedding video business so I wasn’t as skilled at making movies, and crowdfunding was not as popular. Last year in the spring I realized that I could probably do it, and it would probably be a lot of fun as a personal project. I also watched the film “Helvetica” and realized that if someone could make a film about a font, why not about Newton.
Was it easy to make this movie? Some funny/weird/strange story during recording/production time?
The crowdfunding was very difficult, because I was learning as I ran the campaign. In the end we only raised half the money that I would have liked, about $7000USD. This meant there was no money at all to pay myself, and don’t forget I also had to deliver shirts to all the backers and will have to do USB flash drives, etc. My friend Frank Orlando worked for free as a graphic designer to design shirts. To save money I bought a shirt-printing kit and began printing the shirts at night in my basement and garage and shipping them out. I started to make the film. On my trip to Düsseldorf and Paris I travelled with a single backpack with my cameras and clothing, and planned to camp (Matthias, a Newton user, was kind enough to let me stay at his house in Düsseldorf). I took the bus to save money (we ended up getting lost overnight on our way to Paris, and sideswiping another vehicle, there was also a drunk guy who was sleepwalking and kept yelling the whole trip). It was harder than I thought it would be, but very rewarding.
I was amazed in California that some of the original Newton team were willing to talk to me, so in addition to some of the Newton users, they are in the film, talking about their work.
Because of the budget it was cheaper for me to partner with videographers in other parts of the world (such as New Zealand) to get some of the interviews that I wanted. I worked with other wedding videographers, and it worked surprisingly well in most cases. Some users even sent me videos they shot themselves, which was a lot of fun.
How did the Newton’s user community react to the news about your project? Do they support you?
The Newton community was very supportive. Especially Grant Hutchinson, the Newtontalk.net “list dad,” Sylvain Pilet from France, who runs the French site message-pad.net, and B Dudney, MD, all of whom contributed large amounts financially to the film, and Sylvain put together a Newton 2100 package which we sold on the campaign website, as well as an eMate refurbished by Frank Gruendel (pda-soft.de), one of the people most involved in the Newton community.
I think the best part is that I was a part of the community before I began the film, so it is not like I am some outsider making a film about crazy Newton users, I am part of the “crazy.”
How did you managed to meet with John Sculley?
Initially I wasn’t able to get in touch with John Sculley. I think he probably has to filter out a lot of people and I was not that important. I have been working with David Greelish from classiccomputing.com to do a video on the history of personal computing, and he had interviewed John in the past for his podcast. He introduced me by email and this time John responded, and we set up a meeting. He told me I had one hour, but that turned out to be perfect. So we sat there in his apartment with a beautiful view overlooking Central Park in New York and I asked him questions. At the end of the interview he let me take a selfie with him. I gave him one of our shirts, and he told me he hadn’t seen a Newton for years, so I let him keep my Original MessagePad. So John Sculley has my MessagePad.
What plans for the future in the context of the film?
Right now the focus is on finishing the edit. I know we have some really great sequences, but turning that into a film that people will want to watch is hard. We have some small festival showings scheduled at MacStock and other computer festivals, and of course we will release the film to backers and then work on distribution (iTunes and streaming platforms) as well as some other traditional film festivals.
One thing that I have discovered about the Newton community is that it’s not so much about the Newton anymore, as it is about the people. Because of the Newton, many people have come together and become friends who would never have met otherwise. Steve Capps in my interview says that “good software is about people,” and I think that’s another reason the Newton is such a personal device to us.
Thank you, Noah!