February 27, 1998: Apple discontinues work on the Newton MessagePad product line, the series of personal digital assistants the company launched five years earlier.
“This decision is consistent with our strategy to focus all our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” Steve Jobs says at the time. “To realize our ambitious plans we must focus all of our efforts in one direction.”
The sad death of the Newton
At the time, people viewed the death of the Newton with sadness and slight (though not total) surprise. It was sad because, after suffering a few technical teething pains early on, the MessagePad and Newton OS had finally morphed into a truly great product.
Just four months earlier, Apple released the final Newton — the MessagePad 2100. It had been the best iteration of the product yet. The MessagePad 2100 packed expanded memory, enhanced speed and upgraded communications software.
By this point, Apple engineers had solved the Newton’s early problems with handwriting recognition.
The result was as useful a pocket device as you could expect in the days before ubiquitous mobile internet access.
What made the cancellation of the MessagePad project a bit surprising was that Apple had, only a few months earlier, spun out the product line as its own company, Newton Inc.
That move suggested to many that the product was finally ready for prime time.
The Newton’s demise did not entirely shock close observers, however.
Of the 130 employees working at Newton Inc., just 30 remained as part of the group in February 1998. The others moved over to another top-secret Apple product (the first-generation iBook).
Other people noted that new CEO Jobs didn’t like the Newton. The Apple PDA was a pet project of John Sculley, the CEO responsible for Jobs’ departure from Apple in 1985. Although Sculley was no longer Apple’s CEO for the majority of the Newton’s product life, the device’s early development took place under his watch.
Apple Newton’s final days
People in some corners viewed the Newton as Sculley’s answer to the Mac — his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as CEO.
“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.”
Jobs may have harbored a bit of residual resentment toward the Newton product line. (He did so for many of the changes that took place at Apple during his absence.) But he wasn’t totally wrong to ditch the MessagePad.
During its 4.5 years on sale, the Apple PDA sold only 150,000 to 300,000 units, despite multiple hardware and software updates and continual work. As he showed in the years that followed, Jobs cared about blockbuster products that would sell to the masses.
The Newton just didn’t cut it.
Not the end
At the time, it seemed the Newton was bound to go down as a fascinating — and genuinely pioneering — footnote in the Apple history books. In fact, looking at it with knowledge of how Apple makes the majority of its money today, the Newton MessagePad line can be viewed as an early prototype for the iPhone and iPad.
For evidence, just check out this original 1980s “Knowledge Navigator” teaser for the project that became the MessagePad. Remind you of anything?
Do you remember the Newton? Which model, if any, did you own? Do you think Jobs did the right thing abandoning it?