iPhone: Will It Be the Next Newton?

iPhone: Will It Be the Next Newton?

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Ever since then-interim CEO Steve Jobs killed the Newton project "to focus all of (Apple's) efforts in one direction," a steady stream of rumors has extended hope that a handheld Mac would someday emerge from the ashes of the MessagePad 2100. As we now know, a team of developers at 1 Infinite Loop has indeed been working on a tablet-style touchscreen device. And, just as the Newton did (and as the included "Welcome to Newton" video promised), the upcoming device "helps you as you capture, organize, and communicate your ideas and information."


While the physical similarities between the Newton and the iPhone are few, Steve's Mac Expo keynote in January bears a likeness to the address his predecessor, John Sculley, gave when he took the wraps off the Newton. Both devices represented years of sweat, tears, and scrapped prototypes. Both were billed as revolutionary. And both generated some serious buzz long before they were scheduled to ship.


But is the iPhone doomed to suffer the same fate as the Newton MessagePad, which never really took off? Or did Apple leave its troubles behind with the stylus?




In its promotional video, the Newton's "real power" was described as "the ability to turn your handwriting into text." More than its email client and onboard software, everyone wanted to test the Newton's electronic ink. But the MessagePad's "best guess" handwriting recognition was often comically wrong. The device became the punch line for some high-profile jokes - like on The Simpsons, when bully Dolph writes "Beat up Martin" on his Newton and it translates into "Eat up Martha."


Of course, the iPhone doesn't bother with a stylus or handwriting recognition at all. Instead, the phone has a more muscular version of the Newton's onscreen keyboard - a "missed opportunity," according to Albert Muniz, an associate professor of marketing at DePaul University. "The (handwriting recognition) on the first-generation Newton was pretty shaky," Muniz explains. "However, subsequent iterations had great handwriting recognition. I truly believe this was an important feature in generating such loyalty."


What it hasn't yet built in niche popularity and nostalgia, the iPhone may be able to gain in modern practicality. Its QWERTY soft keyboard seems to strike a balance between the potential of word-based recognition and the simplicity of typing.


Walter Smith, who designed the original NewtonScript language for the MessagePad, believes "people have adapted amazingly well" to typing on miniature keypads, but also finds handwriting recognition to be superior - at least for some. "A word-based recognizer might have 99 percent accuracy, but a user might prefer a character-based recognizer with 95 percent accuracy because its mistakes are 'smaller.' They correct single characters instead of rewriting whole words," he says. Still, in today's text-messaging culture, Apple was smart to toss the stylus.




When John Sculley demonstrated the 1-pound Newton back in May 1992, it was a stunning mix of form and function designed to "help you work smarter." Like the iPhone, the Newton made instant headlines and, despite long shipping delays, created a healthy buzz of anticipation.


Once it hit shelves, however, the Newton wasn't all Apple's genius. Many of the MessagePad's best functions were conceived outside Apple - something that looks less likely for the iPhone


Smith, who left Apple and the Newton group two years before the device's demise, recalls that when designing the Newton OS, his team "didn't know of another option" besides "the traditional OS platform model" of built-in and third-party apps. He believes that with the iPhone "there will have to be third-party apps at some fairly general level just to be competitive with other smartphones." Muniz, who has researched and written about the Newton community extensively, agrees. "The Newton community has done a great job of perpetuating the product."




With the iPhone, Apple is entering a very crowded market, standing on the shoulders of the RIM BlackBerry and Palm Treo to find its footing. With more than 200 new patents protecting its underlying technology and features, Jobs made it abundantly clear during his Mac Expo keynote that he feels the iPhone has no peers.


It's interesting that the iPhone's most intuitive features - one-click dialing, "visual voicemail," and rich HTML email - sound a lot like the Newton's original objectives, outlined in the 1993 product announcement: "The Newton MessagePad can find a phone number and dial the phone for you, fax a note, format a letter, and even set up a lunch appointment."


But there's no denying that the iPhone does all of these things better and cleaner than before. Even screen rotation, a feature that eventually popped up in the Newton OS, works more fluidly and intelligently on the iPhone.


It remains to be seen whether Apple can keep up the pace on its own: "The advantage of opening products like the iPhone to innovation by users and other non-Apple developers is steadily increasing," says Eric Von Hippel, author of Democratizing Innovation and head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at MIT. "Apple is giving up this advantage to maintain control.


The Newton may have been doomed by its stubborn price point (the first one was $499, and the most advanced MessagePad 2100 cost $999) and overambitious roadmap, but the creativity of outside developers kept it on life support long after Apple tried to kill it. The iPhone's multi-touch technology, on the other hand, is far more advanced and versatile than the MessagePad's tap-and-scribble method. And Apple has proved that "the iPod model of controlling everything," as Smith describes it, works just fine.


But Apple can't afford to squander the hype it's built around the iPhone. When the Newton finally launched, it represented nearly seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D. These days, Apple is smarter, switching chips when the PowerPC didn't deliver and carefully crafting the iPod into a cultural touchstone.


Even so, Apple knows how important the iPhone is to the company's continued success. Steve Jobs acknowledged this when he placed its introduction alongside the Mac and the iPod on the scale of revolutionary products that have changed the industry. Not surprisingly, he left the Newton off that list, but it seems that the iPhone owes its distant cousin a bit of gratitude, if not for paving the way, then certainly for illuminating the potential roadblocks.


Do you have an opinion about the Newton or the iPhone? What are your predictions about the iPhone's future - or lack of it? Share your thoughts with the world in the "Comments" section, below.




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I have been using PDA phones for a number of years. The first was a big, chunky O2 XDA. I can read and write Word and Excel, use Outlook (and sync it to Windows and Mac).

When the battery dies, I buy another one. I watch movies via a 2GB SD card. I can rotate the screen if I want to. I can change SIM cards and providers at any time.

My point is, what am I getting when I get an iPhone?

1. Lock-in to 1 provider

2. A fixed battery,

3. much the same apps I already have. Selectable voice mail and a 3-component geophone to rotate the screen.

The LG Prada will be out next month and promises to be every bit as cool as the iPhone, earlier and battery-replaceable, as a standard phone you can buy without a plan.

Hard to justify waiting for an iPhone

On the other hand, here in Asia, it will take so long before the iPhone is released that we may get a more mature version of the product, and the vendor tie-ins may be less restrictive. Until then, I will be happy to use the O2.

All this talk of an Apple sub-notebook and nobody here seems to have made the comparison with the Newton. Strange! Would that not be a better comparison?



You know that Apple has learnt a lot from the failure of Newton. And Newton was failed only because people did not reliaze that how functionful it was :)

iPhone Converter



The problem with the Newton wasn't that it was too advanced, but rather that it was too expensive. The original Mac was too expensive. Job's NeXt computers were really advanced but too expensive. The iPhone is great, but again, it's too expensive. When you have other smart phones sitting right next to it in the store that cost less than half as much but do the same thing, consumers start to really think about their wallets. Job's RDF lasts only so long.
The Newton had production problems, and i have no doubts that the iPhone will too. I just don't see this thing taking off as much as other people think. Sure, right away it'll be a hit, but once the initial hype wears down, I don't see it sustaining it's growth. Now if you were to sell this thing without the phone, then I think you've got something.



I still use my Newton 2100, which can (these days, thanks to amazing developers working on a 10 year old platform):

* read email easily (including IMAP)
* use bluetooth
* subscribe to iCal calendars
* use wifi
* serve web pages (easy way to leave behind messages, desktop to Newton)
* link information in a way that iCal, AddressBook, Mail, and the Finder only dream about
* read handwriting better than any other platform out there, because it's reading MY handwriting, not some new script I had to learn.

It's still an amazing machine. I cherish it, since it does things no other machine can. It's intuitive, I can bring it to meetings more easily than any other computer, and it's powerful beyond imagination for how old it is. Developers like Paul Guyot, Simon Bell, and Eckhart Köppen are amazing.

The thing is, the iPhone modernizes the entire platform to this decade, and does so elegantly (from what I've seen). It runs OS X, which is freaking amazing to see on such a tiny platform. The two elements that I really want to see are the handwriting (which is in OS X as "ink" for those with graphics tablets) and a decent note taking program like "Notes" on the Newton. Primitive, yet complete. With that, you'll have a Newton, modernized.

But, it will do all the things people will expect of a machine like this. Phone, email, web, those are things the Newton didn't have. They are necessary these days.

In summary, the iPhone is as much a Newton as OS X was a Macintosh. At least this time, they changed the name enough... but if the iPhone had service in my rural area, I'd get one the moment it was out.



I almost forgot. When a "concerned shareholder" (special interest hack) asked Steve Jobs whether or not Apple would offer to pay the penalty for people to get out of their long-term contracts, he said no. "Most people can get out for $100-$150, they should just pay it and get out." That was the just of his comment. So not only is he not worried about people ponying up for the cost of the iPhone, he believes they should pay to get out and join Apple.



Newton was killed because it was the product of the previous management at Apple. When Steve Jobs returned after being fired from the company that he founded he didn't want to continue anything that his prececessors started, no matter how cool.

I was a the recent shareholder's meeting in Cupertino. It was obvious that they KNOW that they have something really special. The ultimate proof is that they have chosen to spread the income from the iPhone (including a kickback from every subscriber each month) over 2 years. Now there is a CEO that is confident about his earnings going forward.

At the meeting Steve mentioned that they were just beginners at the cell phone market. He said it in the same manner that Tiger Woods downplays his golfing ability, as his income from golf goes past the billion dollar mark...

This is just their first version of the phone. Compare the original, large B&W ipod to what's out now, four short years later.

Here's to new beginnings!



This is absolutely ridiculous. When the Newton came out, less than 1% of the country was using email. There was no text messaging. There was barely anybody using the Internet. There was no mobile computing as we no it today. There was no WIFI. Hell, there weren't even CELL PHONES! Comparing the iPhone to the Newton is like comparing the computer to an ancient scroll.




I had a Newton.
It rocked.

It took years before cell phones could do anything similar.

Over the last couple of years I've owned a SE P910i and now a SE P990i. Both use handwriting recognition. And work a dream doing most of the stuff that I and I guess most would want from a phone and an organisor. My biggest problem with the SE phones are that they don't have a good relationship with Apple and isync. The P990i doesn't work with isync (don't talk to me about plug-ins. They DON'T work! I've had to find a workaround). And nor are the P1i or W960 phones supported.

I'd get an iphone in a heartbeat if it offered the same functionality as the SE's since I know it'd be compatible with my OS of choice - the Apple! At the moment it doesn't nor does it offer a few other common phone functionalities eg MMS.

I'm watching the iphone upgrades carefully. You're not ready for me yet!



I must agree that comparing the iphone to the newton is like comparing a scroll to a computer. you just had the order backwards. the newton was/is a real computer and it is extensible, how many flip phones do you see folks making new functions for? how extensible is a flip phone?

if you were in the tech field when the newton came out then you'd likely been using email for years and years. the 'internet' was everything is is now without html and multicasting. pretty much everything else is a recasting of what came before.

and yes virtualization is not new, IBM has had that on big iron for quite some time. virtualization and cluster computing were on Apollo workstations from inception.

oh and there was NO spam, NO viruses and the few idiots that posted drivel were flamed into oblivion.

and I'm not even OLD!



I had a cell phone in 1988, so I don't know what the previous commenter is talking about. I remember Netscape in 1994, but I was using BBS systems and email before that. My newton 120 did have an email client available, and contrary to what some comics wrote, it was the Newton 100 that had terrible handwriting recognition. My 120 rarely made a mistake after being trained.
If you fire up a Newton, you will see that it does many of the things the iPhone does. It played games, organized addresses, and took notes. My 120 had a Newton modem which could send faxes. It even gave you a custom cover page. It was hardly an ancient scroll. The only thing stopping it from being a phone/camera/music player were the limitations of the technology at that time. It was only a few years later however that all of this was possible.
There was however text messaging. Pagers have been around for quite some time. The previous commenter must be under 20. Live a bot more before you speak.
As for the iPhone, I think it will be a flop. Technology leaps are getting closer together. Phones have become disposable. Since they are used more than other devices and the batteries are fully cycled, the lifetime of a battery is under 8 months. The battery will cost more than the phone.
I like the concept, but there are better devices out there already that do more and have more memory for photos and music. Touch screens are not new. By the time the iPhone is released, I expect 3 or 4 more devices to be announced, all with superior capabilities. Buying into the iPhone 1.0 won't even rate as cutting edge. Competitors will already be releasing 3.0 models.

Oh, and about the mobile computing crack. I had a carrying case for my 512Ke. :-P



Why do some people think just because 'they' had something that everybody else did. Just how many people were walking around with cell phones the size of a football field? Oh, and that 512Ke I'm sure fitted nicely in the back of your pickup truck too!

Wishing the iPhone away is NOT going to make it a failure...

Hold on to your 512Ke, it's gonna be a doozy!



Your comments are good. but you are not pointing out that the iPhone will have a unique software platform, capable or running desktop class programs, the interface functionality is smooth and easy to use in spite of it's complexity and all the features iPhone will have. And I'm sure that when it will be released, will have more great software features and apps that Jobs had kept in secrecy, it's a tradition!. Apple is building and walking it's own path in cell phones, the iPhone will be a class by itself, like the iPod. I had been a smartphone user by years, I like only the best and I'm happy that I will have the smartphone of my dreams at last. Let it Be.



I do not believe the iPhone software platform will be much different from the Blackberry OS or even the other Mobile PC platforms. I looked at a new Blackberry yesterday and the opening screen looks almost identical.
Don't get me wrong, I prefer Apple as a computer and I love my iPod, but this Phone is just not that different. As for super secret functions, why not add an SD card capability like other phones that are already out? Why seal the battery in? There are just so many smartphones out there, that they will become the next $99 deals. Profit in communication is not in the phones, it's in the subscriptions. What is Apple thinking?



Apple gets a piece of each month's bill from all the subscribers using iPhones. They aren't dumb. Now the only question left is just how many dollars a month are going to go to apple. $1/month times 10 million phones...$120 million per year! I'd guess the actual number is probably closer to $3.00/month.



When the Newton came out it was way ahead of its time. Even when the last Newton came out, the 2100, it was still way ahead of its time. Mobile computing was in its infancy. Most people simply didn't get the point and the Newton failed to make the breakthrough. This was partly Apple's own fault as there was too much hype about handwriting recognition and not enough emphasis on the rest.

The Newton was a fully feldged computer. The hardware (at least on the later models) had enough muscle to run advanced applications and the grayscale display was good enough for advanced displays (by the standards of the time). There was a moderately priced developer package with a powerful programming environment with which any moderately computer-savvy person could create their own software. Exchanging files and even synchronising calendars was just a question of a mopuse-click or two. Third-party software soon came out that was compatible to programmes like MS Excel - including preservation of column widths, font styles and even some of the graphing options. Only the Newton was up and running at the flick of a switch. The days of the classic luggable laptop seemed well and truly numbered.

Only the media and the public failed to see that. the Newton was just a handwriting recognition gadget. Oh yes, and there was an optional keyboard - so writing texts was just as easy as on a laptop.

By comparison, the iPhone is just a phone. Apple is being somewahte vague about how third-party developers will be able to add their own apps. Yes, I can write texts and even surf the web. But can I leave my laptop at home? Is the dispaly really big enough to work with conmpfortably? Will there be a pluggable hardware keyboard? Only when these questions can be answered with a firm yes will I consider the iPhone as a successor or even an alternative to the Newton. Lets wait and see.

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