Apple’s Lessons From the Newton 

I ran across an article today on Roughly Drafted titled “Newton Lessons for Apple’s New Platform.” It’s an interesting read, especially considering it’s two years old.

The article discusses the failure of Apple’s Newton project of the early 1990s. The Newton was Apple’s first foray into the PDA/handheld computer, and frankly, it was not a bad attempt at all. The early models were plagued with slow hardware and rough software (made famous forever in a comic strip), but at the end of the series (with the MessagePad 2000 & 2100 models), Apple had the kinks worked out.

But it was too late. Brant Sears, a Newton developer:

“The bottom line was that Apple created something really cool and almost usable with the Newton. But unlike now*, Apple products of that era were often great, but had one or two fatal flaws that prevented them from actually being practical to use.”

He cites reasons as the physical size of the Newtons (too big for a pocket, too small for a bag), battery consumption, poor APIs for developers to sync their applications, and more.

Nowadays, when people think of Apple’s mobile development platform, the iPhone comes to mind. Having used both (a MessagePad 2100 got me through college, and yes, it wasn’t that long ago), it is clear Apple learned from the mistakes of the Newton:

  1. The iPhone OS is touch-based. The Newton was a hybrid- it used a stylus with handwriting recognition that was very poor until later models, but there was an external keyboard, which was great for longer sessions. I used to prop mine up at an angle and use the keyboard to answer emails or type class notes. The iPhone has yet to be open to this, but the touch-based OS is so good, I don’t see it is a need.
  2. The iPhone development tools are quite robust. While they’re limitations and was a brutal NDA that has now been lifted, developers have much more power in the new OS to create powerful applications that can sync with other services and the customer’s desktop.
  3. The iPhone is fast. Using a distant cousin of the same processor that powered the Newtons, the iPhone is far snappier than the hardware of the 1990s. Now, this is somewhat unfair, but the Newton OS needed more hardware than was available.

It’s not all hugs and sunshine though. Some of the old ghosts still haunt the current products:

  1. The iPhone is a closed world. Don’t like iTunes? Too bad. Want notebook tethering? You have to take things into your own hands. The Newton synced with only a few applications on the Mac and PC. Hate AT&T? Uhh….
  2. Hardware compromises still hang up some users. While the iPhone 3G’s hardware’s is a nice evolution of the first one, some things are still pretty lame. The 2.0 megapixel camera is out-paced by even cheap, crappy little cell phones.
  3. Internal battery, what?!

I’d still perfer the iPhone over the Newton. At least for everyday use. But it’s nice to see echos of the past in my pocket today.


*Yikes. Old Mac guys can be bitter.