March 10, 2004: Apple sends out a survey to select Apple customers, claiming that it is considering relaunching the Newton MessagePad.
In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that this apparent “interest” in launching another personal data assistant was a way of doing some undercover market research for the still-in-development iPhone.
“We need to determine why the Apple Newton was not a commercial success and whether there is an interest in re-launching a new version of the Newton,” Apple’s survey said. “Your comments will help understand why the Newton failed and if there is interest in re-launching a new, improved Newton.”
The Newton MessagePad and the new thing
Apple launched the Newton MessagePad in 1993 with the goal of creating one of the world’s first PDAs. Apple engineer Steve Sakoman, a passionate advocate of handheld computing, drove the project early on. While at Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s, Sakoman developed the HP 110, the world’s first battery-powered portable MS-DOS PC.
The MessagePad project took place entirely during the decade-long period while Steve Jobs was away from Cupertino. Many viewed the Newton as Apple CEO John Sculley’s answer to the Mac. It was his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as CEO.
Newton flaws make it a joke
The technology did not initially work as well as hoped. The press piled on, printing numerous jokes about the Newton and painting the device as a failure.
Ironically, once Apple actually got the technology right with later devices like the MessagePad 2100 — which perfected the handwriting-recognition system the Newton included as a central feature — Jobs had returned to Apple. He decided to cancel research into the PDA.
Apple officially ended the Newton experiment on February 27, 1998, with Jobs issuing a statement. “This decision is consistent with our strategy to focus all our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” he said. “To realize our ambitious plans we must focus all of our efforts in one direction.”
Mobile is back
However, by the mid-2000s, Apple’s Mac business was booming. The company successfully moved into other areas as well, such as the enormously profitable iPod business. It only made sense, therefore, that Cupertino would consider other mobile devices — with the Newton the obvious reference point.
Inside Apple, two simultaneous iPhone research projects got underway: the so-called P1 and P2 projects. Right from the start, it became clear that both would need to offer PDA-style functionality. But Apple needed to work out exactly why the Newton MessagePad failed to click with customers.
It’s not known how much Apple wound up listening to the feedback from this particular Newton survey. Still, as with the various patents Apple filed over the years, it’s fun to look back later and see how some of the company’s decisions make perfect sense in hindsight.
Were you a Newton MessagePad user? Leave your comments below.