The Apple Newton- A Retrospective

Sometimes product ideas are so ahead of their time, they are doomed to failure. Case in point, the Apple Newton.

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In the early 90’s, Apple was on the upswing, but in a bit of a technological rut. It was Michael Tchao that pitched the idea to Apple’s then CEO, John Sculley. While rudimentary by today’s standard, they set out to not just create another peripheral to use with computers. What they sought out to do was create an entirely new class of computers. The PDA (a term coined by Apple) or Personal Digital Assistant was to be a pocket sized device for storing contacts, managing your calendar, and sending faxes among other things. However, the real game changer was to be the handwriting to text translator. In theory, you could sit in your meeting and with the use of a stylus, write down any and all info and have it converted to text.

This was a monumental undertaking to say the least. In the early 90’s, miniaturization was a far cry from what is possible today. Plus, all off the shelf parts were made to fit into a square case. The ambitious  Newton was anything but square. Sculley was adamant that for it to succeed, it had to fit in the pocket. There was no backing down from that. It is said, the design team had such a hard time, and they joked of sneaking into his house and replacing all his pockets with larger ones. Eventually, they were put a working prototype together. In 1992, the Newton was debuted at CES to a roar of applause.

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The problem was, while it worked, if was highly flawed. The handwriting translator was a problem from the get go. Character recognition was fair at best and more time was spent fixing errors than actually writing the notes.

They kept at it though and version 2.0 of the software was released. It had become a well functioning handwriting translator but, the damage was done, the public lost faith and interest.

While it was a technology that could have been salvaged, the death blow came quick. Jobs was able to regain control of the company from Sculley and one of the first things he did was kill the Newton. He absolutely hated it.

“God gave us ten styluses,” he would say, waving his fingers. “Let’s not invent another.”

In the biography titled Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, he is quoted saying,

"If Apple had been in a less precarious situation, I would have drilled down myself to figure out how to make it work. I didn’t trust the people running it. My gut was that there was some really good technology, but it was fucked up by mismanagement. By shutting it down, I freed up some good engineers who could work on new mobile devices. And eventually we got it right when we moved on to iPhones and the iPad."

That was it. The Newton was discontinued on February 27, 1998

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While gone, it has not been forgotten. A vast amount of technological knowhow went into creating the Newton. While Apple did go on to create world changing technology in the iPhone and iPad, the Newton is undoubtedly the grandfather of them all.

 

Posted on January 16, 2018 .