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Apple’s Newton: Biggest Failure or Greatest Peeks into the Future?

  • Apple’s Newton was both its biggest failure and greatest peek into the future.
  • The device was announced far ahead of being shipped and was eventually a disappointment.
  • Apple had two separate devices that eerily predicted the world we live in today and both failed.

Apple’s Newton handheld computer was both the company’s biggest failure and its greatest peek into the future. Thirty years after launch, AppleInsider reminisces about what it was, what it meant, and where it went wrong. Back in 1993, Apple’s press officers did the rounds of every technology magazine there was. When they reached one in London, they had the speech down pat. In particular, they knew how to fend off criticisms by asking questions first.

In 1985, Jean-Louis Gasse wrote that “in five years or less, computers will probably be capable of recognizing handwriting.” Today, Gassee is a businessman turned writer with an insightful and witty technology blog. When disaffected Apple engineer Steve Sakoman wanted to quit in 1987, that’s when Newton began. Sakoman wanted to escape Apple’s politics, return to product creation, and work on his idea for a device with handwriting recognition.

It’s not clear how long Gassee really did keep this project secret from the rest of Apple, but by 1990, the company’s Board definitely knew about it. Bill Atkinson, the man who was principally responsible for the Apple Lisa’s graphical interface, invited Steve Capps plus Apple legends Andy Hertzfeld, Susan Kare, and Marc Porat to his home for a meeting on March 11, 1990. It was to discuss a way of keeping Newton going and, significantly, John Sculley was also invited. Sculley asked for something that he could show the Board at their next meeting and that’s how Newton was kept alive.

Marc Porat, who was at Atkinson’s March meeting, had been involved since a year before with a separate project to do with making partnerships with Apple and companies in the communications and consumer industries. This year’s documentary about the company even shows some of the ways it implemented as total a blackout of news as it could.

When Sculley launched the Newton on May 29, 1993, it didn’t work. Literally. The first prototype demonstrated on stage wouldn’t switch on. Fortunately the second did. Even so, Sculley should not have caved in to pressure to announce it yet. Ultimately, the Newton wouldn’t actually ship for another 14 months. It came out on August 2, 1993.

Apple’s Newton was a device that was both the company’s biggest failure and greatest peek into the future. The device was announced far ahead of being shipped and was eventually a disappointment. Apple had two separate devices that eerily predicted the world we live in today and both failed. It’s a fascinating story of Apple’s innovation and ambition. The Newton MessagePad was a revolutionary device when it was released in 1993, and despite initial good sales, it was far below the initial expectations set by John Sculley, CEO of Apple. Despite its slow speed and imperfect handwriting recognition, the Newton MessagePad was the first device to bring the idea of having our calendar and emails with us all the time. It went through eight versions of hardware and many software revisions, and even after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and killed the project, it still remained popular until 1998. The device is still remembered today, and even features in the Apple TV+ series “For All Mankind” as a Newton MessagePad 120 with an iPhone 12 hidden inside. William Gallagher, Apple Historian and Senior Editor, has 30 years of experience discussing Apple technology. Read more of his work today to learn more about the Newton MessagePad and its revolutionary legacy.

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