Today in Apple history: Newton MessagePad inspires mobile revolution


The Newton MessagePad looks gigantic next to an iPhone.
The Newton MessagePad looks gigantic next to an iPhone.
Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikipedia CC

August 2: Today in Apple history: Newton MessagePad launch inspires mobile revolution August 2, 1993: Apple debuts the MessagePad, the first product in its Newton line of handheld personal digital assistants.

The most unfairly maligned product in Apple history, the Newton is a revolutionary device. It predates Apple’s push toward app-based mobile devices 14 years later. Often dismissed as a failure, the Newton ranks near the top of the list of Apple’s most influential creations.

This post contains affiliate links. Cult of Mac may earn a commission when you use our links to buy items.

The Apple Newton: John Sculley’s Mac

The Newton was often regarded, both internally and externally, as Apple CEO John Sculley‘s answer to Steve Jobs’ Mac. The device marked his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as Apple’s chief executive.

“It was Sculley’s Macintosh,” 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 the brainchild of Apple engineer Steve Sakoman. Passionately dedicated to handheld computing, Sakoman 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 Apple skunkworks project that became the Newton in 1987. However, it grew unwieldy after Sakoman added to his wishlist all the cutting-edge mobile technology features showing up in research labs. These included a touch-sensitive screen, handwriting recognition, a hard disk and a sizable battery. An infrared port would even allow the devices to communicate with one another. (Bear in mind that all of this was in the late 1980s!)

Sakoman left Apple in 1990. In early 1991, Sculley saw the concept. At that point, the Newton moved from skunkworks project to full-speed-ahead development.

One of marketing whiz Sculley‘s chief contributions? Coming up with the phrase “personal digital assistant” to describe what the Newton would actually do for customers.

The launch of the Newton MessagePad

The Newton MessagePad launch at the 1993 Macworld Expo proved relatively low-key compared to the 1984 debut of the Macintosh. Still, Apple’s new handheld device garnered a fair amount of press.

Unfortunately, some of this took the form of parodies of the Newton’s technology. Its handwriting-recognition software took an especially big hit. (It got spoofed in a Doonesbury cartoon and on The Simpsons.)

This Doonesbury cartoon hit the Newton hard
This Doonesbury cartoon nailed the Newton’s iffy handwriting recognition.
Photo: Doonesbury

In fact, the Newton’s handwriting recognition actually worked impressively well. Consider two of its most stunning features (and again, let me remind you this was three decades ago!).

First, the Newton could recognize cursive handwriting as well as printed letters. Second, while it shipped with a library of 10,000 words it could recognize out of the box, the device could learn new words just as iPhones do today.

That wasn’t the only bit of artificial intelligence built into the MessagePad, either. It also showed contextual awareness of what a person was writing. For instance, 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, an appointment book and an address book. Impressively, it also incorporated 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 memory cards, battery packs, power adapters and an external fax modem that linked the device to Macs or Windows PCs.

The Newton MessagePad: Ahead of its time

In all, the Newton MessagePad was an impressive $699 device that proved way ahead of its time. The sleek black look of the device was more reminiscent of Apple’s later iPhones than the “Snow White” design language of the Macintosh line in the early ’90s.

Ultimately, three things doomed the Newton: early negative press, a lack of the internet connectivity that would make smartphones “must have” items, and Apple’s early 1990s identity crisis. (The company’s products proved too pricey for casual buyers but too risky and underpowered for business users.)

The Newton became a commercial failure — but it spawned many of the biggest successes Apple enjoyed in later years.

Apple Newton gets better over time

Although the Newton never wound up becoming a big hit for Apple, subsequent iterations of the device ironed out a lot of its early problems. By the time Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s, the final Newton — the MessagePad 2100 — had been released, offering the best iteration of the product yet.

By this point, Apple engineers had solved the early handwriting-recognition problems. The result was as useful a pocket device as you could expect in the days before ubiquitous mobile internet.

Nonetheless, Jobs canceled the product line. He chose to focus Apple’s attention on blockbuster products like the iMac G3, the iBook and the iPod.

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


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.