Today in Apple history: Newton MessagePad inspires mobile revolution

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Apple_Newton_and_iPhone
Remember the MessagePad?
Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikipedia CC

July 2August 2, 1993: Apple debuts the MessagePad, the first product in its Newton line of handheld personal digital assistants, at its Macworld Expo.

The most unfairly maligned product in Apple history, the Newton is a revolutionary devices which pre-dates Apple’s push toward app-based mobile devices 14 years later. Often wrongly dismissed as a failed product, the Newton easily ranks near the top of the list when it comes to Apple’s most influential creations.

The Newton was often regarded, both internally and externally, as John Sculley‘s answer to the Mac — meaning that it was his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as CEO. “It was Sculley’s Macintosh,” is how Frank O’Mahoney, one of the Apple marketing managers who worked on the Newton, told me when I interviewed him for my book The Apple Revolution. “It was Sculley’s opportunity to do what Steve had done, but in his own category of product.”

The Newton was originally the brainchild of an Apple engineer named Steve Sakoman, who was passionately dedicated to handheld computing, and had previously built the HP 110, the world’s first battery-powered portable MS-DOS PC, while at Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s.

He started the skunkworks project which became the Newton in 1987, although it grew unwieldy when Sakoman began adding to his wishlist all of the cutting-edge handheld computing technology that was starting to show up in research labs. This included a touch-sensitive screen, handwriting recognition, hard disk, sizable battery, and infrared port that would allow the devices to communicate with one another. (Bear in mind that all of this was in the late 80s!)

Sakoman left Apple in 1990, and in early 1991 John Sculley was shown the concept — at which point it moved from skunkworks project to full-speed-ahead development. One of Sculley’s chief contributions was coming up with the phrase “personal digital assistant” to describe what it was that the Newton would actually do for customers.

The MessagePad’s launch in August 1993, priced at $699, was relatively low-key compared with the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, although it still achieved a fair amount of press. Unfortunately, some of this took the form of parodies of the technology — especially its handwriting recognition software which was spoofed in a Doonesbury cartoon and on The Simpsons.

Doonesbury
This Doonesbury cartoon had a negative impact on the Newton in the eyes of many.
Photo: Doonesbury

In fact, the Newton’s handwriting recognition actually worked impressively well. Two of its most stunning features (again, let me remind you that is almost a quarter-century ago!) is that it could recognize cursive handwriting as well as printed letters, and that while it shipped with a library of 10,000 words it could recognize out-of-the-box, it also had enough intelligence to learn new words in the way that our iPhones do today.

That wasn’t the only bit of artificial intelligence built into the MessagePad, either. In addition, it showed contextual awareness of what a person was writing — so that scribbling in “Meet Killian Bell for lunch on Wednesday” would create an entry in the MessagePad’s calendar app at the appropriate time.

Speaking of apps, the first-gen MessagePad included a notepad, appointment book and address book. Impressively, it also incorporated Steve Sakoman’s infrared transmitter, letting users “beam” data to and from other Newtons or — in a somewhat un-Apple move — to rival Sharp Wizard electronic organizers. Add-on hardware included an external fax modem which linked the device with a Mac or Windows-running PC, additional memory cards, battery packs and power adapters.

In all, the Newton MessagePad was an impressive device that was way ahead of its time. The sleek black look of the device was more reminiscent of Apple’s later iPhones than the then-current “Snow White” design language of the Macintosh line in the early 90s.

Ultimately, it was let down by three things: early negative press, lack of the kind of internet connectivity that had made smartphones into “must have” items, and Apple’s early 1990s identity crisis whereby its products were too pricy for casual buyers but too risky and underpowered for business users. It was a commercial failure — but a failure which spawned many of the biggest successes Apple has seen in the years since.

Did you have an original Newton MessagePad? Leave your comments and recollections below.

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  • Peter Briggs

    I had a Message Pad. I rather liked it, but it had two things going against it:

    1) Lack of anything like usable software bundled (the thing that killed Apple in those early days)

    2) It had a power inverter hum whine. I’ve never seen anyone mention this, but it was a problem I had with a couple of earlier Powerbooks, too. I’m cursed with sensitive hearing, and I could hear the thing even from across the room…it was chalk down a blackboard. That one just made it unusable for me. And so, back to the store it went for a refund.

  • sMalL hIlL

    Build ’em um to kick ’em down. It was as great as a 5 1/4″ floppy disc.

  • Craig

    I had several Newtons – and still have one of them in my closet-museum. Despite having a limited software package the Newton was as revolutionary in 1993 as the iPhone in 2007. If Apple hadn’t been such a cluster-***k during that period the Newton might have survived. I certainly saw a glimmer of the Newton when the iPad was unveiled.

    I stil wish my iPads had handwriting recognition. Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPads but I can not for the life of me understand why Apple does not include handwriting recognition in Notes. I would probably use the iPad for more than listening to music or watching Netflix.

    Disclaimer: I was a member of a startup company that worked on a deal to use Apple Newtons as the hardware base for a product we were creating. And we were sorely disappointed when Steve returned and killed the Newton.

  • kappete

    I have a MP 2100, a 2000, a 130, two 120 (one still boxed and sealed) and a eMate, which is still used by my 7 years old daughter, not counting keyboards, bags and other equipment such as modems, network card and expansions. Every time i get my iPad in my hands I can’t avoid thinking how much this wonderful device owes to the Newton project.

  • One small correction. The OMP (Original MessagePad) debuted on Tuesday, August 3rd … not Monday, August 2nd as indicated in the article. Macworld Boston, where Apple introduced the Newton, didn’t begin until August 3rd in 1993.