Remembering Apple Newton’s prophetic failure and lasting impact

“In product lore, high profile gadgets that get killed are often more interesting than the ones that succeed. The Kin, the HP TouchPad, and the Edsel are all case studies in failure–albeit for different reasons,” Mat Honan reports for Wired.”Yet in the history of those killings, nothing compared to the Apple Newton MessagePad/”

“The Newton wasn’t just killed, it was violently murdered, dragged into a closet by its hair and kicked to death in its youth by one of technology’s great men,” Honan reports. “And yet it was a remarkable device, one whose influence is still with us today. The Ur tablet. The first computer designed to free us utterly from the desktop.”

Honan reports, ” The real impact of the Newton was the thinking that took the computer out of the office. Today, the PDA is with us all the time… It’s our smartphone, and the whole concept of the smartphone was that it would bundle the PDA, the camera, the MP3 player, and the cell phone. And then there’s Siri… The idea of an intelligent assistant that can recognize natural language and act on its intent is powerful once again, but this was something Newton pioneered–one of its great strengths was its ability to take a sentence like ‘I have a lunch meeting with John tomorrow at noon’ and translate that into an actual calendar item. The Newton project was a failure, sure. But its impact lives on, in our day-to-day lives”

Read more in the full article here.

21 Comments

  1. For me the Newton was not à failure. It was a great PDA which was 10 yrs in advanced. I still have à Newton 120 which still works very well. It’s just too bad that Steve killed it…I was hoping that Apple would develop an improve version of the Newton and they arrived with the IPhone. I was full of joy when it arrived and still consider that the IPhone is the greatest gadget i ever had.

    1. Jobs hated pen UI devices because they are superslow to input text and because you lose the pen anyway.

      That said, Newton was definitely outstanding project. We have ARM architecture today only because Apple needed RISC CPU for Newton.

  2. The problem for the Newton project was that technology wasn’t able to keep up with the visionaries at that time. Once the technology was practical, the descendants of the Newton appeared in the form of the iPhone and iPad.

  3. The Newton was a typical Apple failure.
    That is its a great products that go too far too early and are released too soon before technology was ready for it. The iPhone is the Newton with correct technology. Apple mistakes tend to become amazingly successful products eventually.
    Lisa->Mac Newton->iPhone Pippen->Apple TV?

  4. I had nothing but success with the Newton. It was the first handheld device that I regarded as truly general purpose. It suffered mightily in the media due to issues with handwriting recognition but as far as being a portable repository of countless documents, it was great.

    It was probably when I first learned that all it takes is a few people to condemn a product and just watch the echo chamber reverberate. Countless people who never touched a Newton from late night talk show morons to Homer Simpson made jokes about it. When I’d demo it to people it got nothing but Ooos and Ahhhs.

    1. While not doubting the capability of the Newton, it was killed by a cheaper alternative which was just as capable in the handwriting recognition department, the Palm Pilot. Palm (the hardware company – Palm OS was sold to a Japanese company) was in turn killed by the iPhone.

      “We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in. We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”
      – Ed Colligan, Palm CEO on the iPhone

      Poetic justice?

      1. I too own a Newton, a MessagePad 120.
        Yes the Palm Pilot did better in handwriting recognition because it used Graffiti, a slightly altered alphabet that you had to learn and write in only one designated spot at the bottom of the screen.

        Whereas the Newton 2.1 OS could recognize cursive & printed text mixed or printed only. The cursive & printed mixed version would “get better” by learning your specific way of writing. (quite amazing) The printed only option was a huge improvement and was very good.

        The other big deal, the whole screen did the recognition. You could write anywhere on the screen.

        It is too bad that version 1.0 of the OS was very rough on the recognition but many users just did not understand how it worked.

        Best example:
        You have been using it in cursive & printed mode for a month. It has now learned your style of the alphabet. Your friend wants to try it. He writes with his handwriting and the recognition is awful. Well, that’s because it was used to your handwriting.

        It’s been awhile since I looked at it but I think there was a guest mode just for that purpose, where it would default to the built in letters. I’ll have to find it, power it up again to play with.

        Later

  5. Newton as an idea was decades ahead of it’s time, it’s only when the iPhone and latterly the iPad were launched that the hardware was truly able to do the basis idea any justice.

    1. Most likely. But us geeks that owned one and could wrap our head around what it could do in 1995, (18 years ago) were very impressed.

      It is definitely a piece of history that paved the way for PDAs and smart phones.

  6. Steve probably realized that the hardware wasn’t were it needed to be.
    Witness all the failed Microsoft “tablets” – too early, too little (and too crappy).
    Once all the pieces were in place, he was able to bring the vision into the physical world.

  7. Even in this article they get the assistant part slightly wrong.

    The example should have been:
    “Let’s have a lunch meeting with John tomorrow.”

    It would then schedule an event for tomorrow, based on the word lunch it would pick 12 noon, it would look thru your contacts for people named John. If only one, then it would pick that one, if there was more than one John, it would pop up a list for you to pick the correct “John” and then complete the calendar event.

  8. Here, here! Still have my Newton MessagePad, and after all these years, still works! I couldn’t sell it off after it’s demise. Just loved it after playing around with at the Apple Employee’s Store at the Apple Cupertino campus in 1995. Was happy Steve came back to save a near dead company, but was mad as Hell when he kicked the Newton to the curb. I know, I know, the gadget was John Scully’s baby that was going to change the world. I never lived up to the hype, was too expensive and lost out to the Palm Pilot, which couldn’t do half the things of Newton, but it was pocket-sized and was cheaper and easy to use. Just ahead of its time and still lives on within iOS devices.

    JEJ

  9. I, too, am a current Newton owner. By the MP 120, Apple fixed the handwriting recognition to the point where it is still superior to any and all third party solutions I’ve played with on the iPad. One area it was sorely lacking: sync of Contacts, Calendars etc. Something iPhones do very well,

  10. The only bad thing about Apple (well, there is no question that there IS some arrogance there, but……) is that for some odd reason, Steve Jobs had a tremendous obsession with pen input.
    I absolutely believe he was wrong. Give it to us as an option.
    I take a lot of notes, and in the early 2000’s I had a PDA, maybe Philips, cant remember the name, but the handwriting recognition was quite good, certainly enough to jog my memory later. And to this day, faster than fingers, and I am pretty fast with my fingers. The case was very flexible so, i went through two warranty replacements inside 6 months, finally gave up.

    But handwriting recognition is still something I want. And too many Apple people (I am a user since 1984) believe that if Apple doesnt want it, no one should have it. Handwriting recognition is the only serious one that affects me personally, but a stylus is not a sinful device!

  11. John Gruber wrote about this in 2004, that one of the things that killed the Newton was it wasn’t built to easily interact with Macs (or other, lesser, computers). Compare that to the whole OS X/IOS/iCloud ecosystem of today where each product line improves the others with a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Jobs may not have liked the Newton, but surely he learned lessons from it.

    http://daringfireball.net/2004/08/parlay

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.