Twenty years ago, Apple released its first experiment in tablet computing, the Apple Newton MessagePad. While it proved to be a financial disappointment for the company, Apple’s first touchscreen device paved the way for future innovations in mobile technology, including the wildly successful iPhone and iPad.
The tablet also served as the cornerstone of a new market of personal digital assistants (PDAs), a term Apple coined to describe a handheld computer that functioned as a mobile complement to, rather than a replacement of, the desktop PC. Apple envisioned PDAs as pocket secretaries and communicators, incorporating a notepad, an address book, and organizer software, and emphasizing networking through modem accessories and short-range IR ports.
At a base price of $699 (about $1129 when adjusted for inflation), the MessagePad was a pricey gadget at launch, but one that pushed the technological boundaries of the day. Packed inside the 1-pound, 7.25-by-4.50-by-0.75-inch device were a 32-bit ARM 610 CPU running at 20MHz, with 640KB of RAM, and a 1-bit, 336-by-240-pixel LCD. Apple’s choice of a battery-sipping ARM CPU was novel at the time, as the architecture had not yet become the mobile stalwart it is today.
But as with most Apple products, raw technical specs weren’t what drew users to the Newton platform. Instead, it was the pen-based touchscreen interface that made the MessagePad distinctive. Lacking a keyboard, the MessagePad depended on handwriting recognition for text-based user input—a futuristic feature that captivated the public’s imagination when trumpeted by Apple marketing, but one that fell far short of expectations when the product actually shipped.
It’s worth taking a moment to explain the difference in terminology between Newton, which was the broad name for touchscreen mobile technology (and the associated operating system), and the MessagePad, which was Apple’s hardware implementation of the Newton technology. This distinction makes sense when you consider that Apple licensed the Newton OS to other companies that produced their own hardware.
In hindsight, one of the most prescient features of that OS was the Newton Assistant, which served as a text-based precursor to the iPhone’s Siri. By writing on the screen, users could ask the Assistant to perform many systemwide functions with natural-language commands, including printing documents, sending faxes, and making appointments.
For application software, the MessagePad shipped with several basic organizer and productivity applications built into ROM. Users could also load up additional programs by linking the MessagePad to a Mac, although that functionality was limited at launch. User space was limited too: The MessagePad provided only about 140KB of user storage in battery-backed RAM. Apple sold 1MB, 2MB, or 4MB PCMCIA flash cards (which plugged into the MessagePad’s single PCMCIA slot) for a more robust solution.
Failure to launch
Over a year prior to the MessagePad’s August 1993 launch date, Apple CEO John Sculley gushed over Apple’s vision of PDA technology in several public appearances and in the press. Chief among these capabilities was handwriting recognition, touted as almost flawless by Apple PR. This almost magical feature captivated the media, which had no problem touting it as the future of computing.
That would have been fine if Apple delivered on its promises. But after Apple announced its plans for PDAs, several competitors developed similar products, scaring Apple into setting a too-short deadline for completing the MessagePad. The result was an incomplete product that stumbled out of the starting gate.
At launch, Newton’s much-hyped handwriting recognition performed poorly. The software attempted to recognize whole words written by the user, but it usually failed, producing frustrating and bizarre nonsequiturs. Critics derided the feature, and soon Apple’s new technology was being lampooned in the media (most famously in a weeklong Doonesbury comic strip and on The Simpsons), severely damaging the Newton brand.
Not surprisingly, sales of the original MessagePad were poor, with Apple moving a mere 50,000 units in the product’s first four months on the market. Sculley had previously promised that the Newton platform would emerge as a major new source of revenue on a par with the Apple II and the Macintosh, but that never materialized. Depending on whom you ask, the Newton’s tepid launch contributed strongly to Sculley’s departure from Apple in late 1993.
While much is made of the Doonesbury strip in Newton lore, the early stumbles with faulty handwriting recognition merely hampered early adoption of the platform; they did not sink it entirely. Over the next five years, handwriting recognition (among other features) improved dramatically in successive iterations of the MessagePad, and yet Newton never crystallized into something truly essential for the broad consumer or business market.
With the success of the iPad, we can now see that the key to Newton’s lackluster performance lay in its disconnectedness. Today’s touchscreen mobile devices have an almost endless supply ready-made software and content primed for consumption and delivered through ubiquitous wireless networking (both Wi-Fi and cellular) over a global computer network. User input methods, whether via a stylus or a finger, have turned out to be largely irrelevant as long as there’s plentiful content and the transfering of information—both user-generated and otherwise—is fluid.
Interestingly, Apple engineers and executives alike foresaw the need for strong networking during the development of the Newton, but the infrastructure and technology simply weren’t there yet. The MessagePad, in a sense, arrived too early to its own party.
The MessagePad may have not have been a commercial boon to Apple, but as one of the very first stylus-based pocket computers, it stirred the imagination of future mobile device developers, including those of the PalmPilot, Windows tablets, early smartphones, the iPhone, and beyond.
Photo credit: Newton MessagePad 2100 picture at the top of the article by Moparx.