One of the most infamous Apple products to hit the market in the first Non-Steve-Jobs Era was the Newton. This PDA (remember those!?!?) was Apple's attempt to make a device that could be portable, useful, and have some amazing technology in it. The Newton was an absolute failure for Apple. Now, 30 years later, Jeremy Reimer at ArsTechnica looks back at this device with so much wasted potential.
The Newton MessagePad 100 went on sale for $900 in 1993 dollars, or about $1,800 today. For that money, you received a device that was absolutely innovative and different but which still had many rough edges.
The primary feature of the device, the handwriting recognition, did not work well out of the box. It had to be trained on a user’s unique writing, and it failed to recognize many words.
This flaw led to a massive backlash in public opinion, and the Newton became the go-to reference for expensive but flawed high-tech gadgets. Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau wrote a series of comic strips in which a character tried to get the Newton to recognize his handwriting, with hilarious results. The Simpsons released an episode in which Nelson Muntz told his friend to “take a note on your Newton.” He wrote, “Beat Up Martin," but the Newton translated it as “Eat Up Martha.”ArsTechnica
The referenced Doonesbury comic (and my nod to it in my title) can be found here. According to Reimer, the Newton's lifetime sales were 200,000 units. That's a horrible amount of units to move, considering there were six versions and an educational model called the eMate.
I actually came to learn of the Newton in my freshman year of college and subsequently got one on eBay. It was the first model and boy was it rough. I loved it though. Yes, the handwriting recognition was awful, but I saw the potential the thing had. Eventually I upgraded to the "120" model, 2 revisions higher than my "100" model. That was a bit better, but definitely not enough. I still have vivid memories of using a card-sized box to send a fax from it to my mother as a test.
The Newton was one of the most notable products axed by Jobs upon his return to Apple. This was a time wherein he culled nearly the entire product line Apple had going. Looking back on the Newton, I can see it was more of technology that came too early rather than a product that sucked. Yes, the Palm Pilot was very successful but they too were niche. Most people outside of a business setting didn't usually have them.
Wifi and cellular data changed the game. When early offerings of GPRS and Edge were all we had, there were product successes like the Sidekick and Windows Mobile. The Newton and the Pilot would've found much more success today, but in some ways they have. Smartphones are the realized, and time-appropriate, devices that solve all the problems a PDA was looking to handle.
If you have time to learn more about the Newton and its fascinating journey, check out Defying Gravity by Markos Kounalakis.