December 23, 2012, 9:21 PM —
Fifteen years ago, Apple released its first and only touchscreen laptop (so far), the often forgotten eMate 300. This translucent clamshell portable, which ran Apple's Newton PDA operating system, represented a bold experiment in educational computing and a drastic departure from Apple's traditional hardware design.
The machine's colorful case, which later inspired the iMac and the iBook, launched a new era in Apple design--though few realized it at the time. In fact, few people could actually buy the rugged machine when it launched in March 1997, as Apple offered it for sale only through education channels.
With a 25MHz ARM CPU, 1MB of RAM, and 2MB of flash memory for document storage (unusual at a time when most PDAs used battery-backed RAM), the eMate wasn't made for heavy lifting. Instead, Apple designed it as a low-cost educational computer for children.
Indeed, the eMate was one of the cheapest computers Apple had ever made. Its $799 price (which is equivalent to about $1151 in today's dollars when adjusted for inflation) made it seem like a steal compared to Apple's flagship notebook at the time, the PowerBook 3400, which retailed for $4500 in its most bare-bones configuration (that's about $6485 today, and it wasn't even gold-plated).
A new educational manifesto
Tucked into the eMate's first product spec sheet is a brief tract that lays out the basics of a bold educational ideology. It's slathered in marketing lingo (they called it a "Distributed Learning Environment"), but it's there.
Essentially, Apple wanted to put a cheap, portable, rugged computer in the hands of every child. It wanted to make the device easy to use and interoperable in a world full of both Windows and Mac machines. And it wanted the eMate to be network friendly--both peer-to-peer (via IrDA transfers) and peer-to-Internet. Sound familiar?