Published by Aditya Agarwal on and last updated on

Apple Newton PDA: The device that gave birth to iPhone

Apple after Steve Jobs left was diverging itself into more and more products. They brought a lot of products, some good and some bad. One of the great products that flopped was the Apple Newton. And it has nothing to do with “Newton” the scientist.

It was a personal digital assistant, with no buttons. It was like a smartphone in its design, though it was slow, bulky and was really big in size.

Michael Tchao pitched the idea to Apple’s CEO, John Sculley, in early 1991. The company would announce it the following year, and the first product in the Newton Line, the MessagePad 100.

The Newton was not a single device. Rather it had multiple versions. And as Steve Jobs later realised after returning back to Apple, that they themselves weren’t able to justify the need for so many versions of there products.

It went like the Macintosh, it was great, it had features that astonished the public, and a design people would love to use. But it was bulky, and though some people liked handwriting recognition, others didn’t feel it natural. Moreover it was slow.

the handwriting recognition was so good that Apple used it as the basis for handwriting recognition in macOS. In fact, if you set up Ink in System Preferences with a compatible tablet, and then write “rosetta rosetta rosetta” in the handwriting recognition area, the system will input “rosetta rosetta Hey, that’s me!”. Rosetta was the name of the handwriting recognition technology in the Newton. Good enough for a modern macOS in 1998.

The filesystem on the Newton used a new concept that did away with the hierarchical file system—everything, all of your data, contacts, notes, apps, everything—lived in a flat list of data called a “soup”. Everything in the soup was indexed and could be recalled instantaneously using the index. This was the basis for another key macOS technology—Spotlight. Again, another technology from 1998 good enough for a modern macOS.

The “Assist” function. This was by far the coolest feature. You could write anything anywhere—for example, you could write “Meet with Bob on Tuesday at 9:30 am”—select the text, and then tap the “Assist” button at the bottom of the screen. Newton would then parse the information you wrote and selected and take action based on what it understood. For this instance, that means that it would create a calendar event for Tuesday at 9:30 am, locate “Bob” from your contacts, and invite Bob to the event via e-mail. It gets even better—you could write “have lunch with Bob” and Newton would create the event for noon instead. It was really smart! The technology behind this, data detection, became part of macOS first in Mail, but then in other PIM apps like Contacts and Notes. It’s also a large part of how Siri works, but the technology for Siri came from an acquisition and wasn’t developed in-house. I know it seems trivial today, but this technology was magical in 1998.

It is a really less known fact that Apple launched its own merchandise store also in 1986. The Newton and things like these, clearly showed that Apple was diverted from its motive if making better products, to motive of making profits. John Sculley could never understand tech, and he just ran the business, which was a real fail in long run.

Add to this the fact that the MessagePad 2100 had two PCMCIA slots and used regular AA batteries—it was a winner. Later on I was even able to get an 802.11 Wi-Fi card for it—someone had written a driver and a web browser to provide connectivity. Unfortunately, future development was axed when Steve Jobs returned to Apple. He took what he needed—the best technologies—from the Newton and used them in iPhone and other Apple products.

Aditya Agarwal
"The People Who Love The Journey, Are The Ones That Reach The Most Beautiful Destinations"
Categories: Creations

Aditya Agarwal

Aditya Agarwal

"The People Who Love The Journey, Are The Ones That Reach The Most Beautiful Destinations"

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