Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 years on

Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 years on

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Thirty years ago, on May 29, 1992, Apple announced its most groundbreaking and revolutionary product yet, the Newton MessagePad. It was released to great fanfare a year later, but as a product, it could only be described as a flop. Widely mocked in popular culture at the time, the Newton became a poster child for expensive but useless high-tech gadgets. Even though the device improved dramatically over time, it failed to gain market share, and it was discontinued in 1997. Yet while the Newton was a failure, it galvanized Apple engineers to create something better—and in some ways led to the creation of the iPad and the iPhone.

The vision thing

Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple in 1976, had wooed marketing guru John Sculley away from PepsiCo to become the new Apple CEO in 1983. However, their relationship broke down, and Jobs resigned from Apple two years later after a bitter power struggle. Although Sculley made Apple profitable by cutting costs and introducing new Macintosh models, he felt lost without Apple’s visionary founder. So when Apple Fellow Alan Kay burst into Sculley’s office and warned him that “next time, we won’t have Xerox” (to borrow ideas from), he took it seriously.

In 1986, Sculley commissioned a team to create two “high concept” videos for a new type of computing device that Apple could conceivably build in the future. These “Knowledge Navigator” promos showed a foldable, tablet-like device with a humanoid “virtual assistant” that interacted via spoken instructions. While some derided the impracticality of these sci-fi vignettes, they fired up Apple employees and got them thinking about the future of computing.

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