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Think Retro: Why the cute and quirky eMate was Apple's most human product

Christopher Phin | Dec. 10, 2014
The Newton-powered eMate was stylish, friendly, and made the best noises you’ve ever heard from a device.

emate primary

It's not that I don't like Apple's current hardware and software, but I fondly recall the days when its computers were suffused with a chirpy, cheerful personality. Today's slabs of aluminum and black glass are powerful, desirable, and elegant, but you could also call them austere, anodyne--perhaps even unfriendly.

It's a world away from the Apple of the '80s and '90s. Then there was a playfulness--a playfulness that shaded almost into anarchy--in things as dull as error messages, even in flagship software. True, this was not always welcome, nor to everyone's taste--Exhibit A: Clippy--which is probably why the practice died out as software became more professional.

There was surely, though, no friendlier Apple product than the eMate.

Partly that's thanks to how it looks. It was the first time Apple used translucency, predating the iMac by more than a year, and the swooping curves of roughened green (green!) plastic plus a cute and practical carry handle meant its very dissimilarity to other computers at the time gave it a quirky and non-techy feel.

emate 01

Much of the friendliness of the eMate, though, came not from its outer skin but from the OS that beat beneath it. This, of course, was a Newton device, running the same operating system that powered the MessagePad line of PDAs. And Newton OS was so very lovely.

Visually, it was simultaneously crisp and deliciously chunky. Cleaner and more coherent than even the Mac OS of its time, little touches of humor and humanization of technology nevertheless permeated throughout. One example: the little newt you saw on the first setup screen as you calibrated the stylus:

emate 02

But it wasn't just pretty to look at: The thing I always forget I love till I pick up my eMate again is the noises it makes. As you use the stylus to select things on the screen of this, Apple's first and only touchscreen laptop, little confirmatory noises sound, and the joyous thing is that they're not the same sound. Now, this is a tricky thing to pull off--make the sounds too different and you risk people worrying that tapping this checkbox is different from tapping that button, but Apple absolutely pulled it off here. The effect, as you tap about the screen to format a document and send it by fax, say, is that you get a cheery burble of "beek," "bik," "bok" rather than the same "click," "click," "click" as you'd expect on other systems. It's emblematic of a much more human, much friendlier approach to operating systems than any other I can think of.


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