Today in Apple history: Newton boss departs as device struggles

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The Newton MessagePad looks gigantic next to an iPhone.
The Newton MessagePad wasn't the immediate hit Apple had hoped for.
Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikipedia CC

April 19April 19, 1994: The executive in charge of Apple’s revolutionary new product line, the Newton MessagePad, parts ways with Apple.

“We can’t say whether he fell or was pushed,” says an Apple spokesman. Reports suggest that the departing Gaston Bastiaens, general manager of Apple’s Personal Interactive Electronics (PIE) division, is leaving due to his failure to make the Newton a financial success.

The next Macintosh?

The Newton MessagePad was intended as Apple’s next insanely great product in the early 1990s. It was often regarded, both internally and externally, as John Sculley‘s answer to the Mac — meaning that it was his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as 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 started as a research project in 1987, but didn’t come to market until August 1993, when it was unveiled at that year’s MacWorld. The year before that, Apple underwent a corporate reshuffle, which moved the Newton group into the newly formed PIE division, run by Bastiaens.

What happened next

Born in Belgium, Bastiaens joined Apple from Philips Electronics in the Netherlands, where he had helped launch the Philips CD-Interactive player. The Newton should have been a triumph for Bastiaens’ PIE division at Apple, but the device ran into problems.

The big one was the handwriting-recognition technology, which was spoofed in a Doonesbury cartoon and on The Simpsons, giving the MessagePad a bad reputation it didn’t entirely deserve.

Newton
This Doonesbury cartoon had a negative impact on the Newton in the eyes of many.
Photo: Doonesbury
Later software and hardware updates made the Newton a very powerful tool, but the fixes didn’t come soon enough for Apple, which needed the stylus-based personal data assistant to be an immediate hit. Taking the fall for the failure, Bastiaens left Apple to set up his own business.

Unfortunately, his post-Apple career hit some turbulent patches. He became CEO and president of speech-recognition company Lernout & Houspie Speech Products, which was later sued by stockholders who claimed it had cooked its books. In May 2001, he was taken into custody and extradited to Belgium, facing criminal charges. In 2010 he was sentenced to three years in prison.

The Newton Message, meanwhile,  continued to improve as a product — although never seeing enough commercial success to become a hit in its own right. It was canceled by Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple, but the idea of an app-based mobile device with a touch interface became the basis for the later iPhone and iPad.