The first PDA: case Apple Newton

This story is about the precursor of modern PDAs.

The Newton project was not originally intended to produce a personal digital assistant (PDA). The PDA category did not exist for most of Newton’s genesis (however earlier devices like the Psion Organiser and Sharp Wizard had the functionality to be considered PDAs), and the “personal digital assistant” term itself was coined relatively late in the development cycle by Apple‘s then-CEO John Sculley on 7th January 1992, the driving force behind the project. Newton was intended to be a complete reinvention of personal computing.

To clarify, the official name of Apple’s product was the MessagePad; Newton was really the name of the operating system. But Newton captured the public’s imagination, so that’s what the device was popularly called.

One of the original motivating factors for the design was known as the “Architect Scenario”, in which Newton’s designers imagined a residential architect working quickly with a client to sketch and interactively modify a simple two-dimensional home plan.

The end result was a however what became a template for future PDAs. Its initial version rolled off with a variety of software to aid in personal data organization and management.

This included applications as Notes, Names, and Dates, as well as a variety of productivity tools such as a calculator (metric conversions, currency conversions), time-zone maps, and a handwriting recognition, which worked even with the display rotated.

In 1993 before its release, Apple launched a marketing campaign of Newton centered on its allegedly unprecedented handwriting recognition.

When it first appeared in shops, Newton however became a disappointment. It was big (not suitable for pocket), pricy (about $700 for the first model and as much as $1,000 for later), new (no market familiarity) and had software problems (notably, its handwriting recognition was fairly inaccurate and was skewered in the Doonesbury comic strips).

PDAs would remain a niche product until Palm, Inc.‘s (by ex-Apple employee Donna Dubinsky) Palm Pilot emerged shortly before the Newton was discontinued in 1998. The cheaper Palm Pilot was released in 1995 and became a runaway success. It was smaller, thinner and sold at lower cost. It had an excellent PC synchronization and more robust handwriting recognition (Graffiti) system—which had been available first as a software package for the Newton—managed to restore the viability of the PDA market after Newton’s commercial failure.

7 thoughts on “The first PDA: case Apple Newton

  1. Interesting overview, but I’d like to point out a few misconceptions. Graffiti is *not* a handwriting recognition system, robust or not. It is a stroke or gesture recognition system. The HWR in the Newton OS was designed to recognize, not only characters, but entire words – learning from individual handwriting styles and techniques, improving the recognition the longer you used it. The Newton in fact had two recognition systems: one for print, called “Rosetta”; and another for cursive handwriting, called “Calligrapher”.

    Yes, the original HWR in the first versions of the Newton OS were flakey. No one who has used one of those first devices will dispute that point. (I love that series of Doonesbury strips … they’re some of my favourites.) However, subsequent releases of the HWR technology, as found in Newton OS 2.0 and later, were much better and extremely usable for day to day tasks.

    Grant Hutchinson
    List Dad, NewtonTalk Mailing List
    Custodian, Newton Personal Data Sharing Project
    Custodian, Newton Stowaway Keyboard Project

  2. Nice article. I also agree that the first Newtons were bad at recognizing handwriting but later version, as Grant mentions, were much better. But it is true that negative publicity influenced much on sales take off of the original Newton.

  3. Grant> Thanks for the feedback and clarifications. You are right, indeed the later versions of the Newton were much better at handwriting recognition, but still the fact remained that original Newton, in a sense, popularized and at the same time “killed” the PDA market till the advent of popular Palm Pilot.

    David> Yes, the gap between what was promised in the ad campaign and what was delivered was such that original Newton sales never quite reached expected results. As Grant mentions, further versions of Newton made progress and became more PDA-like, if I may say so, but they could not surpass Palm.

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