Tales In Tech History: Apple Newton

Apple in the 1990s was a technology company lost in the wilderness, with patchy sales and a tiny market share.

Its charismatic co-founder Steve Jobs had been ousted in 1985 and would only rejoin when Apple acquired his company NeXT in 1996.

Instead, during the early 1990s, John Sculley was in charge of Apple, but he was having to contend with a fierce PC war, as well as a number of strategic missteps.

These misjudgements included his decision to port Mac OS to run on the PowerPC processor. Others however point to his Newton personal digital assistant (PDA) pet project.

Apple Newton

The idea behind the Newton was a good one and it was considered to be technologically innovative at the time because of its mobile computing philosophy. It was after all, Apple’s first experiment with tablet computing, and some feel it paved the way for future products such as the iPad.

Indeed, the Newton device was responsible for the creation of the term “personal digital assistant”, and it was intended to store contacts, manage calenders, send a fax, and take notes. It also came with a few other productivity tool such as a calculator, conversion calculators, and time-zone maps.

It even, for the first time ever, offered a touchscreen that allowed the user’s handwriting to be translated into text via a stylus pen. Remember, it had no keyboard, just a large touchscreen.

The first Newton machine (the MessagePad) began shipping in 1993, and it was a clunky affair, that was lumbered with a high price ($699 back then, or approximately $1,200 nowadays).

Matters were also not helped by the fact that the much hyped handwriting recognition feature was in reality terrible, and it often misread a user’s handwriting. Both John Sculley and Apple’s PR department had both heavily hyped it as a “killer feature”, but it didn’t work as advertised which soon led to widespread ridicule.

The Newton also had to contend with stiff competition from the well established Psion Organiser, and the Palm Pilot, all of which substantially reduced its market share.

The Newton measured 7.25-by-4.50-by-0.75-inch and utilised a proprietary operating system, Newton OS. Most subsequent devices were based on the ARM 610 RISC processor running at 20MHz, with 640KB of RAM, and a 336-by-240-pixel LCD.

Steve Jobs Return

It can be successfully argued that the Apple Newton was a product way ahead of the technology required, mostly notably decent handwritten recognition technology and other components.

The Newton struggled to gain traction after its initial poor reaction and ridicule, and Steve Jobs hated it because it was a pet project of Sculley. Jobs also hated the device because of its poor performance and the use of a stylus pen. He favoured the use of the humble finger.

It should also remembered that when Steve Jobs returned to the firm, Apple was a company in a very precarious position as it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Jobs had to cut some projects and ultimately he took the decision to put Newton out of its misery in 1998.

That left him and Apple free to work with designer Jonathan Ive on the creation of the iMac, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Quiz: What do you know about Apple?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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