Today in Apple history: Apple shows off the Newton for the first time

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The Apple Newton. Failure, or precursor of the iPhone?
The world gets its first glimpse of the Newton MessagePad, a device ahead of its time.
Photo: Blake Patterson/Wikipedia CC

May 29: Today in Apple history May 29, 1992: Apple demonstrates the Newton MessagePad for the first time, showing how the upcoming PDA can be used to order a pizza and pull off other time-saving tricks.

Hailed by Apple CEO John Sculley as “nothing less than a revolution,” the Newton is Apple’s first major new product since the Macintosh eight years earlier. During the Newton demo at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Apple shows how people can customize a pizza by moving topping icons on a symbolic pie, then fax the order straight from the device.

Newton MessagePad: The Apple PDA is ahead of its time

The Newton was often regarded, both internally and externally, as Sculley‘s answer to the Mac. The mobile device was his first attempt to launch a game-changing new product line during his tenure as CEO.

“It was Sculley’s Macintosh,” Frank O’Mahoney, an Apple marketing manager 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.”

Steve Sakoman: Father of the Newton

The Newton was the brainchild of an Apple engineer named Steve Sakoman. Passionately dedicated to handheld computing, Sakoman previously built the HP 110, the world’s first battery-powered portable MS-DOS PC, while at Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s.

He started the Apple skunkworks project that became the Newton in 1987. It quickly grew unwieldy. Sakoman began adding to his product wish list all the cutting-edge handheld computing technology showing up in research labs. This included a touch-sensitive screen, handwriting recognition, a hard disk, a sizable battery and an infrared port that would allow Newtons to communicate with one another. (Bear in mind that all of this was in the late 1980s!)

Sakoman left Apple in 1990. In early 1991, Sculley saw the concept — at which point the Newton moved from skunkworks project to full-speed-ahead development. One of Sculley’s chief contributions was coming up with the phrase “personal digital assistant,” or PDA. The term succinctly described what the Newton would actually do for customers.

Newton ship date starts to slip

At this time, the plan was for the Newton to ship to users in April 1992. However, it quickly became apparent that this wishful thinking had little basis in reality.

Rather than wait for the project’s completion, Sculley told the world about the Newton in January 1992 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. However, Apple did not properly showcase the product until May.

The demo immediately got the world excited about Apple’s new vision for mobile computing. It came not long after Apple launched the PowerBook 100 laptops, which became massive hits. In retrospect, the PowerBook excitement may have raised people’s expectations too much.

Newton’s troubled development

While the Newton project looked great from the outside, internally things were a bit of a mess. Delays in the project mean the first-gen Newton did not ship for more than a year after its Chicago demo.

An early sticking point arose over disagreement about the Newton form factor. Prefiguring the iPad, which shipped 20 years later, one group inside Apple pushed for a larger Newton (the Senior or Newt Plus) that would measure 9 inches by 12 inches.

Other engineers thought a smaller Newton, nicknamed the Junior or Pocket Newt, was the way to go — even if this meant it would be underpowered compared to a larger device. This group eventually won out. THe smaller Newton became the product Apple focused its attentions on — although not without plenty of office politics.

Newton follows the Mac’s path

Work on the Newton had a lot of parallels with the original Macintosh. The team did incredibly hard work and put in long hours, fueled by an almost cult-like belief in a technology far ahead of anything else in the tech world.

This hard work even led to the tragic suicide of one member of the team, when 30-year-old Ko Isono shot himself in his home. A week later, another Newton programmer suffered a breakdown, and wound up in jail after attacking his roommate.

The Newton MessagePad nonetheless rolled out in August 1993. By that point, Sculley was no longer Apple CEO. Today, people view the original Apple PDA as a product way ahead of its time. Over the next few years, subsequent generations of the device improved on flaws like weak handwriting-recognitions tools.

Unfortunately, the Newton became one of the casualties of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. He canceled the Newton and mothballed the idea of an app-driven mobile device until the iPhone in 2007.

Do you remember the Newton MessagePad? Leave your comments below.