The Newton / iPad axis

In the several years after the Apple Newton came out, the general consensus was that it had been a failure. Looking back with the hindsight of several decades, we can now see just how groundbreaking the Newton project was. Many features of modern PDAs (including the term “PDA” itself) began with Apple’s daring experiment.

By any standards, the iPhone and its later cousin the iPad have been wild successes. It is tempting to oversimplify, and think of the story as a failure followed by a success.

But I think the truth is more interesting. The iPhone and iPad are very much the beneficiaries of Bill Buxton’s “Long Nose of Innovation”. The fact that Apple had jumped feet-first into the mobile computer platform so early, going wide with a technology dangerously ahead of its time, had the effect of sensitizing Apple to the issues of what kind of PDA can be successfully brought to market, and what cannot.

In many ways, the iPhone and iPad can trace their lineage all the way back to the gestation of the Newton. There is a kind of axis that runs straight through the decades, from 1987 — when the Newton project first began — to 2014 and beyond.

It would be interesting to try to guess what are today’s Newtons — overambitious products so far ahead of their time that they won’t be truly successful for another quarter century.

3 thoughts on “The Newton / iPad axis”

  1. This theory breaks down a bit when you look at the personalities involved, and the paths the products took to market.

    Newton was a John Sculley-era project, launched after Steve Jobs was deposed ‘86. Although Sculley had little to do with Newton technically (to put it politely, he “wasn’t technical”) he did produce the Knowledge Navigator video as a vision of what a PDA might be like. The design, UI and architecture of the Newton was completely home grown by the Newton team.

    Steve Jobs HATED the Newton. Even though it was actually starting to turn a profit, one of his first acts upon regaining control of Apple in the late ‘90s was incinerating the Newton project. The team was laid off, sales were halted, and all IP was thrown away. The company concentrated on candy-colored iMacs to get profitable again.

    When Apple started working on the iOS technologies in the early 2000’s, it was entirely with the NeXT-derived technology behind Mac OS X. There’s no overlap between iOS and the Newton in the UI design or underlying software architecture. The only real common thread between the two projects is the ARM CPU, originally developed with the Newton.

  2. Yes, that’s all true.

    My point was that this was an example of a company reaching too far too soon, and then learning from how that approach didn’t sell well. And also that the knowledge learned in the subsequent process of recalibrating was highly valuable.

    I think we can separate Jobs’ dislike of the Newton from any personal animus toward Sculley. There was a long list of people Steve Jobs didn’t like. 🙂

    Rather, the Newton represented a direction for the company that Jobs disagreed with: A lack of focus on the broader consumer market.

    Arguably, that very quality of the Newton, although not good for business, was part and parcel of it being so ahead of its time.

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