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Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 years on

Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 years on

 May 30, 2022 at 5:11 pm   |     Author:   |     Technology  

Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 years on

Thirty years ago, on May 29, 1992, Apple announced its most groundbreaking and revolutionary product yet, the Newton MessagePad. It was released to great fanfare a year later, but as a product, it could only be described as a flop. Widely mocked in popular culture at the time, the Newton became a poster child for expensive but useless high-tech gadgets. Even though the device improved dramatically over time, it failed to gain market share, and it was discontinued in 1997. Yet while the Newton was a failure, it galvanized Apple engineers to create something better—and in some ways led to the creation of the iPad and the iPhone.

The vision thing

Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple in 1976, had wooed marketing guru John Sculley away from PepsiCo to become the new Apple CEO in 1983. However, their relationship broke down, and Jobs resigned from Apple two years later after a bitter power struggle. Although Sculley made Apple profitable by cutting costs and introducing new Macintosh models, he felt lost without Apple’s visionary founder. So when Apple Fellow Alan Kay burst into Sculley’s office and warned him that “next time, we won’t have Xerox” (to borrow ideas from), he took it seriously.

Apple Knowledge Navigator <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umJsITGzXd0">concept video</a>.
Enlarge / Apple Knowledge Navigator concept video.

In 1986, Sculley commissioned a team to create two “high concept” videos for a new type of computing device that Apple could conceivably build in the future. These “Knowledge Navigator” promos showed a foldable, tablet-like device with a humanoid “virtual assistant” that interacted via spoken instructions. While some derided the impracticality of these sci-fi vignettes, they fired up Apple employees and got them thinking about the future of computing.

Meanwhile, Apple engineer Steve Sakoman was bored after launching the Macintosh II. He wanted to make a portable device like the pioneering PC laptop he had built for Hewlett-Packard. To stop him from leaving Apple, vice president Jean-Louis Gassee let him set up a “skunkworks” project to pursue his dream. But he didn’t want to just make a Macintosh laptop. He had a vision of a tablet-like device, the size of a folded A4 sheet of paper, that could read people’s handwriting.

The dream starts to slip away

The technology to create such a device didn’t exist when the Newton project began in 1987, so Sakoman contacted AT&T and hired the company to design a low-power version of its CRISP CPU, which became known as the AT&T Hobbit.

Unfortunately, the Hobbit wasn’t nearly as nimble and clever as its namesake. The CPU was “rife with bugs, ill-suited for our purposes, and overpriced,” according to Apple Chief Scientist Larry Tesler. The original Newton design required three Hobbit CPUs to operate, the end-user cost was nearing $6,000, and the device wouldn’t even be ready for at least five years. The handwriting-recognition software, a key selling point for the device, was also progressing slowly.

Development of the Newton had bogged down, and Sakoman started to lose hope that it would ever be finished. In 1990, he left Apple along with Gassee to found Be, Inc., which made its own desktop computers and the BeOS operating system.

The AT&amp;T Hobbit CPU, making its final appearance in a prototype BeBox.
Enlarge / The AT&T Hobbit CPU, making its final appearance in a prototype BeBox.

At the same time, another “top secret” Apple division was also working on unique portable devices and software under the code name “Pocket Crystal.” Larry Tesler was asked to evaluate this team to see if it might be able to replace the Newton. Instead, he suggested spinning out Pocket Crystal into a separate company (which became General Magic) and refocusing the Newton project with new hardware and new leadership.

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