The Apple Newton: A Fruit that Ripened Too Soon

Announced at 1992’s Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, the Apple Newton was ahead of its time...too far ahead.

Apple’s CEO, John Sculley, called it a “Personal Digital Assistant”, and the journalists present seem to have been in awe of the potential the Newton represented. A digital tablet that recognised handwriting? That could wirelessly send e-mail? That had an operating system that would support all kinds of third-party applications? It was extremely ambitious, but Apple wouldn’t announce it if they couldn’t do it, now would they? All we had to do was sit back, relax, and wait for the 21st century to roll in a few years early!

Unfortunately, Apple’s eagerness to trumpet the Newton and pre-empt any potential competitors from stealing its thunder would prove to have been a serious mistake.

For over a year after Sculley’s bold announcement the Newton remained an intriguing idea, a non-working mock-up displayed proudly under glass at one trade show, and another, then another. People began to wonder, and their concern was not without merit – the truth was, delivering timely handwriting recognition was a great deal more difficult than either Apple’s engineers, or its marketing department – or John Sculley – had previously anticipated.

It was either terribly innacurate or terribly slow –in whichever case, it was simply…terrible. To make matters worse, the additional bold dream of wireless cellular-based connectivity was dashed against the rocks when Apple failed to persuade any major telecommunications company to roll out the infrastructure needed to support it – at its launch the Newton’s communications options were limited to a 2400 baud land-line modem and an infrared port that allowed two Newton users to “beam” messages at each other, hardly revolutionary technology even in 1993.

Eventually Apple was placed in the position of having to release something, and the Newton MessagePad 100 made it into consumers’ eager hands fourteen months after Scully had announced it at CES. It cost US$900 (US$1500 in 2018), but those who thought they were buying the future early were willing to hand over the dough, and 50,000 MessagePads were sold in its first three months on the market, in spite of savage reviews.

The Newton’s RISC CPU was very good at knowing when to take a nap and conserve energy, and the battery life of the Newton was long when it was in such a state of hibernation, but if you wanted to do actually do anything you’d better have a spare set (or two) of AAA batteries on hand – and in the early 1990s, these batteries weren’t cheap. It also took from two weeks to a frustrating two months for the handwriting recognition software to “learn”, and in the meantime the user was forced to constantly correct themselves, an exercise in sadomasochism that grew old quickly.

While later Newton models got better at almost everything, its poor introduction had soiled its reputation permanently, and it struggled, eventually to be eclipsed by the Palm Pilot, introduced in 1996 by the developer of third-party Newton handwriting recognition software Graffiti, who decided they could do the hardware better.

Steve Jobs would finally kill off the Newton after his return to Apple in 1997, citing its slowness and his dislike of the pen interface. Apple would stay away from touch-anything until the iPhone.

Although the Newton was a flop as a “personal digital assistant”, its portability and pen-based interface made it attractive for all sorts of professional use-cases, and it found a home in a number of industries, performing tasks such as checklisting, inventory management, logistics tracking, and the first digital signatures-on-delivery. It could also be used to store and reference knowledge databases of facts and figures, calculate complex formulas, and do other required tasks in-the-field, where power was often scarce.

In these areas, the Newton found its success.

Would you have bought a Newton?

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