August 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.
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.