25 Years Ago, Apple Killed the Newton

When Steve Jobs made it back to Apple, the company had dozens of products that would not survive the company’s move to a much simpler product matrix. In a sea of forgettable Macs and accessories, the biggest loss was the Newton.

The Newton MessagePad 2100

Here is the announcement itself, in its entirety:

Apple Computer, Inc. today announced it will discontinue further development of the Newton operating system and Newton OS-based products, including the MessagePad 2100 and eMate 300.

“This decision is consistent with our strategy to focus all of our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s interim CEO. “To realize our ambitious plans we must focus all of our efforts in one direction.”

Apple is committed to affordable mobile computing, pioneered by the eMate, and will be serving this market with Mac OS-based products beginning in 1999.

Apple will continue to market and sell its current inventory of MessagePad 2100 and eMate 300 computers, as well as to provide support for their installed base of users. The Company is committed to working with its customers and developers to ensure a smooth transition to Mac OS-based products.

In hindsight, it’s easy to poke fun of the Newton, but its user base was passionate about the platform, and didn’t take the news well. A small crowd of them showed up at Apple’s Inifinite Loop campus to make their point known, as was reported by CNET at the time:

As Newton developers gathered outside Apple Computer (AAPL) headquarters today to protest the computer maker’s decision to discontinue the handheld device, company executives responded in low-key fashion.

Apple reserved space in its parking lot and supplied cookies, pastries, coffee, and other drinks to Newton protesters on what has turned out to be a crystal-clear day after yesterday’s rainfall.

Perhaps 100 protesters turned up, carrying signs reading “Newton forever,” “Newton is my pilot,” and “I give a fig for the Newton.”

The article goes on:

Apple has scheduled a teleconference Tuesday with Newton developers to answer questions and hear their feedback.

Meanwhile, Apple is offering a number of sweeteners to lure the Newton developers to the Mac platform, including a free membership in the Apple developers program.


“We understand it was a tough decision and they’re disappointed,” said Apple spokeswoman Rhona Hamilton. “Part of our giving them some space today is to appreciate that it’s a technology that people like and we discontinued it.

“But it is very unlikely that we will change this decision because it was a business decision,” she added. “We hope to convert them to using the Macintosh platform.”

In the June 1998 edition of Pen Computing Magazine, David MacNeill1 wrote a comprehensive history of the platform, then got into some of the possible reasons for its death. He also pointed out that customers weren’t the only ones on the losing end of the decision:

Though Newton owners certainly have good cause to be angry with Apple, developers have been hit the hardest by the untimely death of the Newton platform. Many hard-working companies lost their reason for existing overnight, and have suffered substantial financial losses as a result. Though less visible than commercial software companies, we know of quite a few Newton-specific development efforts involving years of work on vertical market solutions that will never ship due to a lack of hardware.

“Hundreds of businesses have been hurt by Apple’s decision to kill the Newton,” says Newton consultant Josh Weisbuch. “Companies such as Transport Data were well into the development of a ruggedized handheld for the emergency medical and law enforcement industries. Renaissance Digital was working with Children’s Hospital here in Boston to create a completely Newton-based otolaryngology department.”

Many developers rode the “Newton is dead” rumor roller coaster throughout 1997 and 1998, and ended up losing tons of money spent on damage control when their big customers got spooked. Many Newton evangelists reluctantly recommended that Apple remove its logo from Newton devices to make them more palatable to corporations. “Apple never understood the critical importance of vertical markets in creating new markets and still can’t justify investing in creating them,” says John Covington. “It’s one of the reasons I left Apple.”

Many were not happy about this change in direction, but as someone once said, focus is about saying no. If the Apple of 1998 needed to do anything, it was focusing what was working well.

If you want to read more about the Newton, I rounded up some great links a few years ago.

  1. His whole series on the Newton serves as a great time capsule.