Today in Apple history: Apple bids farewell to the Newton


The Newton MessagePad 2100 was the last hurrah for Apple's Newton line.
The MessagePad was a product ahead of its time.
Photo: Moparx

February 27: Today in Apple history: Apple discontinues Newton MessagePad February 27, 1998: Apple discontinues work on the Newton MessagePad product line, the series of personal digital assistants the company launched five years earlier, and Newton OS, the operating system the devices run upon.

This decision is consistent with our strategy to focus all our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” Steve Jobs says in a press release. “To realize our ambitious plans we must focus all of our efforts in one direction.”

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The sad death of Newton MessagePad

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 came with expanded memory, enhanced speed and upgraded communications software.

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

The spinoff of Newton, Inc.

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 PDA 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, who had returned the previous year to the company he founded, didn’t like the Newton MessagePad. The Apple PDA was a pet project of John Sculley, the CEO responsible for Jobs’ departure from Apple more than a decade earlier 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

A magazine advertisement for the Newton MessagePad 2000, which Apple called "the only handheld computer you can actually use." The device is shown with a stylus and a wired keyboard.
The Newton went through multiple iterations during its life.
Photo: Apple

People in some corners viewed the Newton MessagePad 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 and Newton OS.

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 Jobs showed in the years that followed, the Apple co-founder cared about blockbuster products that would sell to the masses.

The Newton just didn’t cut it.

Cancellation of Newton OS and Newton MessagePad isn’t the end for Apple

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. Does the video remind you of anything?

Did you own a Newton MessagePad?

Do you remember the Newton MessagePad and the Newton OS that powered it? Which model, if any, did you own? Do you think Jobs did the right thing when he killed Apple’s PDA?


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