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 did not become the immediate hit Apple desired.
Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikipedia CC

April 19 April 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 division, is leaving due to his failure to make the Newton a financial success.

Newton: The next Macintosh?

The Newton MessagePad was intended as Apple’s next insanely great product in the early 1990s. Many people, both internally and externally, regarded it as Apple CEO John Sculley‘s answer to the Mac. The PDA became his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as chief executive.

“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. However, it didn’t come to market until August 1993, when Apple unveiled it at 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. (He previously helped launch the Philips CD-Interactive player there.)

The Newton should have been a triumph for Bastiaens’ personal interactive electronics (aka PIE) division at Apple. However, the device ran into problems.

The biggest problem? The Newton’s handwriting-recognition technology. Spoofed in a Doonesbury cartoon and on The Simpsons, it gave the MessagePad a bad reputation it didn’t entirely deserve.

This Doonesbury cartoon had a negative impact on the Newton in the eyes of many
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. Cupertino needed the stylus-based personal data assistant to blow up and become an immediate hit.

Taking the fall for the Newton’s 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 later was sued by stockholders. They claimed the company cooked its books.

In May 2001, authorities took Bastiaens into custody. He was extradited to Belgium to face criminal charges. And, in 2010, a court sentenced him to three years in prison.

The Newton MessagePad, meanwhile, continued to improve as a product. Still, it never achieved enough commercial success to become a hit in its own right.

Steve Jobs canceled the product upon his return to Apple. But there’s a silver lining: The idea of an app-based mobile device with a touch interface became the basis for the later iPhone and iPad.