Today in Apple history: Apple shows off the Newton for the first time


May29Apple demonstrates the
Newton MessagePad for the first time at the Consumer
Electronics Show in Chicago.

Hailed by Apple
CEO John
as “nothing less than a revolution,” the Newton is
Apple’s first major new product line since the Macintosh
eight years earlier. During the demo, the press is shown how
users will be able to perform tasks like ordering pizzas by
moving around topping icons on a pie base, and then faxing the
order straight from the device.

Delays in the project mean that the first-gen Newton doesn’t
ship for more than another year, however.

Ahead of its time

The Newton was often regarded, both
internally and externally, as John Sculley‘s answer to the
Mac — meaning that it was his first attempt to launch a
game-changing new product line during his tenure as CEO. “It
was Sculley’s Macintosh,” is how Frank O’Mahoney, one of the
Apple marketing managers who worked on the Newton, told me when
I interviewed him for my book The
Apple Revolution
. “It was Sculley’s opportunity to do
what Steve had done, but in his own category of product.”

Newton was originally the brainchild of an Apple engineer
named Steve
, who was passionately dedicated to handheld
computing, and had previously built the HP 110, the world’s
first battery-powered portable MS-DOS PC, while at
Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s.

He started
the skunkworks project which became the Newton in 1987,
although it grew unwieldy when Sakoman began adding to his
wishlist all of the cutting-edge handheld computing technology
that was starting to show up in research labs. This
included a touch-sensitive screen, handwriting
recognition, hard disk, sizable battery, and infrared port that
would allow the devices to communicate with one another. (Bear
in mind that all of this was in the late 80s!)

left Apple in 1990, and in early 1991 John Sculley was shown
the concept — at which point it moved from skunkworks project
to full-speed-ahead development. One of Sculley’s chief
contributions was coming up with the phrase “personal digital
assistant” to describe what it was that the Newton would
actually do for customers.

At this time, the plan was for the Newton to ship to users in
April 1992, although it quickly became apparent that this was
wishful thinking with little basis in reality.

Rather than wait until the project was complete, Sculley first
told the world Apple the Newton in January 1992 at
the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. However,
it wasn’t until May that Apple carried out a product

The demo immediately got the world excited about Apple’s new
vision for mobile computing, which came not long after it had
launched the
PowerBook 100 series of laptops
, which had been massive
smash hits for Apple. In retrospect, the excitement may have
raised people’s expectations too much.

A troubled development

While the Newton project looked great from the outside,
internally things were a bit of a mess. An early sticking point
with the project came from disagreement about the form factor
the Newton should take. Prefiguring the iPad, which shipped 20
years later, one group inside Apple pushed for a larger Newton
(the Senior or Newt Plus) that would be 9×12-inches.

Other engineers thought
a smaller Newton, nicknamed the Junior or Pocket Newt, was the
way to go — even if this meant it would be underpowered
compared to a larger device. This group eventually won out, and
this became the product Apple focused its attentions on —
although not without causing plenty of office politics.

Work on the Newton had a lot of parallels with the original
Macintosh: incredible hard work and long hours, led by a
almost cult-like belief in a technology that was way ahead of
what was seen elsewhere in the tech world.

This hard work even led to the tragic suicide of
one member of the team, when 30-year-old Ko Isono
shot himself in his home. One week later, another Newton
programmer had a breakdown, and wound up in jail after
attacking his roommate.

The Newton MessagePad nonetheless
rolled out in August 1993
, by which point John Sculley was
no longer Apple CEO. Today, it’s rightly viewed as a
product that was way ahead of its time. Over the next few
years, subsequent
generations of the device
improved on flaws like the weak
handwriting recognitions tools.

Unfortunately, it was one of the casualties of Steve Jobs’
return to Apple, when he
cancelled it
and mothballed the idea of an app-driven
mobile device until the iPhone in 2007.

Do you remember the Newton MessagePad? Leave your comments


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