The Newton MessagePad – the Apple that dropped to earth

In our sleek i- prefixed times, “Newton MessagePad” sounds as anachronistic as “fax machine” and “floppy disc”. Things were very different 20 years ago. On 29 May 1992, the Apple CEO John Scully introduced the Newton at the Consumer Electronics Show, proclaiming the dawn of a brave new era of tablet computing. Just five months earlier he’d coined the phrase “personal digital assistant”. Change was afoot and squarely centred on Cupertino, California. The Newton MessagePad was going to revolutionise computing and kill off the desktop computer. Just six years later, with anemic sales despite multiple product iterations, Steve Jobs instead killed off the Newton. The dream was seemingly over. But why did the Newton fail – a failure made all the more stark when compared to the iPad’s meteoric success? Apple had sold just 50,000 MessagePads in the device’s first three months – they had expected to sell a million in the first year. By contrast, the iPad sold 300,000 units on its first day of launch and 3 million units within 80 days. Earlier this year, Time’s tech journalist Harry McCracken undertook an interesting experiment. Even though he had been a tech journalist in the early 90s, he hadn’t used the first generation Newton MessagePad when it launched. Now, twenty years later, he decided to revisit this first model and see if he could discover why it had bombed. Using the magical eBay, he soon precured a pristeen Newton MessagePad H1000 – boasting an impressive 2400 bits per second (and three-week battery life!). Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, he could get some idea why the Newton didn’t make its breakthrough. Here are the possible culprits ... Screen quality With its measly 240-by-336 pixel resolution, the MessagePad’s screen quality was bad – or worse than bad. According to Harry, “it’s terrible. Terrible...In optimal light, with contrast set just right, the MessagePad’s screen is readable but unappealing. Anywhere else, it can be a challenge to make out.” Interestingly, however, contemporary reviews of the device didn’t single out the screen quality for particular criticism – it seems that people really didn’t expect a better display. So maybe we need to move on to the next contender... Poor writing recognition A major feature of the Newton was that it could convert the user’s handwriting (written on the screen using a stylus) into digital text. Despite being the very best writing recognition software available at the time (it was developed by a Russian team that went on to produce the excellent Evernote), it was in reality very poor. And so the conventional wisdom that this was a major reason for the product’s failure perhaps has some truth. For later models, the shorthand handwriting recognition software Graffiti came to the rescue. Developed by Palm Inc, Graffiti was great, but it wasn’t preinstalled on the device. Though this could have changed the Newton story, this isn’t the whole picture – Microsoft’s Tablet PC also bombed, and so maybe users just didn’t care that much about this feature. So, next up is... The interface With no unified home screen – you had to slowly close dialogue boxes to get to the specific app that you wanted to use – the Newton really highlights how interface designers were still grappling with the concept of the mobile device interface. It wouldn’t have won the Newton many friends. If you fancy giving it a go, you can set up a Newton emulator on your iPad. But now the big one... Its “tweener” size Being the size of a VHS tape (remember those?) and so impossible to fit in all but the most capacious pockets, this is perhaps where we get to the heart of the Newton issue. The Newton is a member of the oft-disparaged but tenacious “tweener” gadget category (too big for a regular pocket, too small to offer a great screen experience). It’s a difficult size to make work. Steve Jobs famously despised it – which is perhaps why the iPad mini was only launched after his death (and why he wouldn't have warmed to the Newton). Interesting, in an age of tweener products (Kindles, Samsung Galaxy Tabs), the MessagePad doesn’t appear out of place. “That might help explain why so many people appeared to be oblivious to my MessagePad when I used it in meetings, on airplanes and at a fancy banquet,” noted Harry. Tweener gadgets have to pick their time wisely, and the nineties might have not have been the right time for the Newton. Instead, according to Harry, at the time it was the makers of the Palm Pilot who made the right product decisions:
There’s an awful lot of Pilot in the iPhone 4S, the iPad and every Android device–starting with the home screen’s grid of icons and the way apps run in full-screen mode. Had Apple followed Palm’s path–smaller, simpler, cheaper–it might have made all the difference.
Or...not a fail, just a pause Ultimately, maybe it’s more accurate to see the discontinuation of the Newton as a pause rather than a death:
When Jobs decided to shut down the Newton division, color screens were still unaffordable, touch input was crude and wireless data didn’t get much more exciting than two-way paging. When he launched the first iPhone nine years later, technology allowed Apple to build the sort of devices it wanted to create in the 1990s, but couldn’t. He may have killed Newton, but he didn’t kill the dream behind it so much as press a giant pause button–and after finally spending quality time with a MessagePad, I’m more convinced than ever that he made the right call.
So it seems that the Newton failed both because of technological limitations and product missteps. However, these missteps most probably laid the groundwork for the iPad’s astronomical success. One feature, at least, was prescient. The Newton’s Assistant feature allowed you to enter natural language commands such as “Phone Alex”. Without a doubt, it’s Siri’s wacky, far-sighted parent.
Published
May 07, 2014