Thirty years ago, in August 1993, Apple launched a product that was ahead of its time: the Newton. It was a palm-sized computer that could recognize handwritten text, send and receive emails, and access databases and galleries. It was the first device to be called a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), a term coined by Apple’s CEO at the time, John Sculley. The Newton was a visionary device that anticipated some of the features that would later become popular in smartphones and tablets, such as touchscreens, wireless connectivity, and digital assistants.
A troubled history
The Newton was not conceived by Sculley, but by Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple’s Vice President of Research and Development in the late 1980s. He presented the project to Apple’s board in late 1990, but left the company soon after due to conflicts with senior management. The project was saved by Bill Atkinson, one of the veteran engineers who had worked on the graphic interface for the Apple Lisa and the Macintosh. Atkinson asked Sculley and other senior figures for ideas on how to advance the new product. Sculley was the driving force behind the team and contributed ideas that today seem trivial to us, like connecting to databases, galleries, and using windows to switch between applications.
However, the development of the Newton was plagued by technical challenges, delays, and cost overruns. The device was originally supposed to be launched in 1992, but it was pushed back to 1993 due to software issues. The handwriting recognition feature, which was supposed to be one of the main selling points of the Newton, was also problematic and often inaccurate. The device was also expensive, costing $699 at launch, which was equivalent to about $1,250 today. The Newton also faced competition from other PDAs that emerged in the market, such as the Palm Pilot and the Windows CE-based handheld computers.
A legacy of innovation
Despite its shortcomings, the Newton was a groundbreaking device that influenced the future of mobile computing. It was the first gadget to use an ARM processor, which is now the dominant architecture for smartphones and tablets. It also introduced features such as infrared communication, power management, and object-oriented databases that are still used today. The Newton also inspired a loyal fan base and a community of developers who created applications and accessories for it.
One of the most notable fans of the Newton was Steve Jobs, who initially disliked it and canceled it when he returned to Apple in 1997. However, he later admitted that he regretted his decision and that he learned from the Newton’s mistakes. He said that he wanted to create a device that was “way smarter than any mobile device has ever been” and that would “redefine what a smartphone can do”. That device was the iPhone, which was launched in 2007 and became one of the most successful products in history.
The iPhone inherited some of the features and concepts from the Newton, such as touchscreens, wireless connectivity, digital assistants (Siri), and app stores. It also improved on them by adding features such as cameras, GPS, web browsers, and multitouch gestures. The iPhone also spawned a series of other devices that followed its design principles, such as the iPad, the iPod Touch, and the Apple Watch.
The Newton may have been a commercial failure, but it was a technological pioneer that paved the way for the iPhone and other mobile devices. It showed that Apple had a vision for creating innovative products that could change the world.