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A Simple Writing Tool Got Very Complicated

It all started with me wanting to use a vintage computer without all the modern distractions to blog about vintage computers. My ideal device was something I could sit on the couch with and type away. A bonus would be an easy way of getting anything I wrote easily onto my WordPress blog. After taking a look at my classic Macintosh collection my first thought was an Apple //c but it wasn’t portable. Next on my list was the Macintosh Portable but despite its name wasn’t really portable either. Next a PowerBook, unfortunately the oldest PowerBooks are a bit flaky, well at least the ones I have are and fixing them is difficult and replacing them is expensive these days.

Having not found a solution I went back to my original premise of “on the couch” and “without distractions”. This led me to the Apple eMate 300. It should have been on my options earlier as I am very familiar, at least I was very familiar 27 years ago (1996) when I was the K-12 Education Manager for Apple in Australia, with this device. I was charged with selling the eMate 300 to schools. And I did a mighty fine job of it. After 6 months of secret prototype testing I had a purchase order in my hand from Australia’s biggest school system for 35,000 eMates. The problem was Steve Jobs cancelled the Newton program (and by proxy the eMate) before the order could be fulfilled.

After pondering the irony of this I decided that and eMate 300 was going to be my blogging tool of choice. So, I got my original prototype eMate off the shelf, the very same one used as a proof of concept to get the above mentioned order for 35,000 units. It had a few problems, foremost was that I couldn’t open the lid without forcing it so hard I thought I was going to break it. Good thing I didn’t’ force it as ceased hinges are a know problem and if they break they usually severe the display ribbon cable. There are some good tutorials on the web on how to fix it but they all seemed like a lot of work. The battery was also dead, no surprise given it is 27 years old. Next option was to buy another one, hopefully without the hinge issue. I set a search on eBay and after a few weeks one came up for sale that to my amazement mentioned that it had had the hinges fixed AND the owner had built a new battery for it. After a very fast BUY IT NOW I now had an eMate to start writing with. 

Writing is one thing, publishing is another. How do I get my writing off the eMate and onto the web? 

If you want a shortcut and want to skip reading this long blog post then the easiest way to achieve what I wanted was a wired solution with a modern piece of software called Newton Connection and a serial to USB adapter cable. More on the modern solution later. I wanted to setup a more period correct solution and I wanted it to be wireless. Afterall why have portability that isn’t wireless.

Setting up Wi-Fi on a computer that was discontinued before Wi-Fi even existed wasn’t going to be easy. I would need a Wi-Fi card that worked with an eMate, and a Wi-Fi base station old enough to work with the card via AppleTalk. AppleTalk had been around as Apple’s proprietary networking protocol since 1985 and the Newton supported it. Newton OS had supported AppleTalk via LocalTalk (Apple’s proprietary cabling system) since launch. Newton OS 2.0 on the MessagePad 2000 and eMate also supported AppleTalk over ethernet (EtherTalk) with an Newton OS 2.0 supported PCMCIA ethernet card. As it turns out not many cards had drivers written for the Newton. An even fewer Wi-Fi cards had Newton drivers written for them as the Newton was cancelled 2 years before Wi-Fi became a thing. However they do exist and based on my research I knew what models to track down. I was lucky enough to find a Farallon Skyline card and Lucent WaveLAN silver card, both are models lucky enough to have Newton OS 2.0 Wi-Fi drivers written for them.

So I now had an eMate with a compatible Wi-Fi card. As it turns out this wasn’t that helpful as Wi-Fi had progressed a lot in the last 24 years. Especially in encryption where WPA and WPA2 are the predominate standards. The Newton Wi-Fi cards only support WEP (a much earlier encryption protocol) and only as an option, by default there is no encryption or even a Wi-Fi password. Basically what this meant was my eMate couldn’t communicate with a modern Wi-Fi network as they don’t support WEP as it isn’t very secure. The only way around this was to find an old base station that supports WEP and hope I could bridge that to a modern network. I figured the best way to ensure maximum chance of success was to go with Apple’s oldest Airport base station, the silver flying saucer launched in 1999. It was also one of the few base stations to support AppleTalk over Wi-Fi. After digging around in my many boxes of vintage computer stuff I found an original Apple Airport Base Station. The only problem was that I needed to configure it and no modern Mac would talk to it. I tired Macs  as far back as a 12″ PowerBook running Mac OS X 10.5 and it still wouldn’t see the Airport Basestation. After more research it turned out that a portable mac running Mac OS 9 was probably the best way to setup/administer the flying saucer base station. After a bit of digging on LowEnd Mac and comparing what I had in my collection it looked like it might be possible to get Mac OS 9 running on one of my old iBook G3’s. After all, this was the machine that launched Wi-Fi on the Mac with the famous MacWorld New York 1999 stunt where Apple’s VP of Product Marketing Phil Schiller (Phil would become my boss a few years later) jump from a 20 foot high tower while surfing the internet on the newly announced iBook G3. As luck had it I was right, I was able to install Mac OS 9.2 on my iBook G3 and configure the base station to route AppleTalk and TCIP/IP over Wi-Fi to a wired ethernet network.

The eMate will talk serial and AppleTalk via LocalTalk natively out of the box. Ethernet, Wi-Fi and TCP/IP all need the Apple Newton Internet Enabler (NIE) software installed. This meant connecting the eMate via either serial or AppleTalk. The iBook doesn’t have a serial port so I had to go and find my trusty old Keyspan USB to mini-DIN 8 serial adapter from back in the day when the iMac was the first mac to ship without a serial port. Once the hardware was sorted I then struggle to get the eMate to reliably connect to the Newton Connection Utility (NCU) installed on the iBook with Mac OS 9.2. As it turns out NCU doesn’t really like Mac OS 9, not really surprising given the Newton was cancelled 3 years before Mac OS 9 was released. After downgrading the iBook to Mac OS 8.6, NCU behaved and I was able to install NIE 2.0 with all the appropriate drivers. After following the NIE configuration instructions found at PDA-Soft the eMate was finally talking wirelessly on both AppleTalk and TCP/IP.

Now that the eMate could connect wirelessly on the network what could it talk to? As it turns out not much. Over TCP/IP to the internet there is the usual compliments of apps, a web browser (not very useful in these https time), an FTP client, Telnet client, email client (once again only useful with POP) etc. However for anything over AppleTalk it was pretty much just Apple’s original connectivity apps for the eMate, the Newton Connection Utility and the eMate Classroom Exchange utility. Both of these apps only really ran OK on Mac OS System 7 and 8, they were a bit flaky on Mac OS 9 and as I had already experienced and literally impossible on Mac OS X in Classic mode. I managed to get a Macintosh SE/30 with an ethernet card onto my home network but it only had 8MB of RAM, not enough to run System 7.5.3 plus the NCU. Lucky for me I remembered that I had a Macintosh IIci with 4x 4MB simms that would fit nicely into the SE/30, now where did I put that compact mac cracker when I last used it about 15 years ago?

Mac Cracker found, 16MB RAM installed, NCU installed. The old Mac fired up nicely and just to test I was on the right track I hooked up the eMate via a serial cable to the SE/30 and was able to installed packages (apps in modern speak) onto the eMate. Once enabling “Allow connection via AppleTalk” in the NCU Settings the eMate was able to see NCU on the SE/30 over a wireless connection.

So, to recap – I now had a retro portable writing device with good battery life that could connect to a modern wireless network. Now for the actual writing workflow. I had originally decided that all I wanted was a way of getting plain text off the eMate but came to realise that I could probably go one better and format the text on the eMate as well.

Every eMate came with a word processor called NewtonWorks pre-installed. It was basic but for its day had plenty of formatting functions. One of its best features was that Apple included a set of file-translators supplied by their software division Claris that translated NewtonWorks to most of the popular word processors of the day. These translators were called Claris XTND’s and we included with all Claris software. Even better was that these translators worked with NCU and the eMate Classroom Exchange server already installed on the SE/30.

So, now I had the hardware and software needed to accomplish what I had set out to do. The final part of the puzzle was getting the formatted file to a modern Mac. Thankfully this was already something I had in place, an AppleShare fileserver on a Raspberry Pi running netatalk 2.10. This solution allows both old and new Macs to share files. 

Now I had a working solution where I could write and format text, transfer it to a modern Mac and publish the text to WordPress via a modern browser. BUT……….

There was a much simpler (but not as fun solution) that I mentioned earlier in the blog post. Newton Connection (NCX) by Newton Research is now up to version 3.0 and it performs a lot of the functions of the original Apple Newton Connection Utility. It runs on modern Mac OS X and can backup, restore and synch your Newton OS 2 device and your Mac as well as allows for software package installs. All you need is a serial to USB cable that Mac OS X has built-in drivers for which is basically any adapter cable with an FTDI chip. It also allows you to browse all the backed up data on your Mac including NewtonWorks files. All you need to do it drag the NewtonWorks document from the backup to the Desktop and it will create a Rich Text Formatted text file, job done!

And I wrote this whole blog post on my new little green friend. And yes, I transferred the file the hard way 😉

If you want to read a little more about the eMate itself then checkout this really good MacWorld article.

One Comment

  1. Nils-Erik Gustafsson Nils-Erik Gustafsson


    A pity your 35 000 units order couldn’t save the eMate (and Newton)…

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