Today in Apple history: Newton MessagePad inspires mobile revolution

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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 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.

The Newton: John Sculley’s Mac

The Newton was often regarded, both internally and externally, as 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 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 that became the Newton in 1987. However, it grew unwieldy after Sakoman added to his wishlist all the cutting-edge mobile technology showing up in research labs. This included a touch-sensitive screen, handwriting recognition, 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 ’80s!)

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 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

The MessagePad’s launch at the 1993 Macworld Expo proved relatively low-key compared with the 1984 debut of the Macintosh. Still, the device got 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.)

Doonesbury
This Doonesbury cartoon hit the Newton hard.
Photo: Doonesbury

In fact, the Newton’s handwriting recognition actually worked impressively well. Consider two of its most stunning features (again, let me remind you this was almost a quarter-century 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, it could learn new words like our 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, appointment book and 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 an external fax modem which linked the device with a Mac or Windows-running PC, additional memory cards, battery packs and power adapters.

The Newton: 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 then-current “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 had made smartphones “must have” items, and Apple’s early 1990s identity crisis, whereby its products were too pricey for casual buyers but too risky and underpowered for business users.

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

Although the Newton never wound up becoming a big hit for Apple, subsequent iterations of the device ironed out a lot of the 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 surfing.

Nonetheless, Jobs canceled the product line 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.

  • 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.