The Apple Newton MessagePad revisited: Warts, wins, and all

The 20-year-old device shows both how much change has passed -- and the consistency of mobile's underlying principles

There's a lot of talk today about the lack of innovation in mobile and how the once-vibrant market is stagnating because not much more can be done. Apple has been criticized hard, and the latest rumors that it's resorting to a gold color option for the upcoming new iPhone typically come with the commentary of "what else can it change today other than the color of the case?" Samsung, having explored pretty much every possible size for a smartphone, has taken similar critiques.

'Apple Newton MessagePad MP100

I do believe we're in a technology pause after several years of unprecedented rapid innovations. But I don't believe the innovation is over. The newly released Steve Jobs biopic reminded me of both how far mobile has come and how the fundamentals last a long time. I've been playing with my original Apple MessagePad, the Newton OS-based 1993 personal digital assistant (remember PDAs?) that Apple launched to polarized reviews.

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It was very innovative, featuring handwriting recognition, a technology that even today is often inexact -- and became the butt of many jokes, especially once cartoonist Garry Trudeau satirized it in his "Doonesbury" comic strip. Still, it presaged the notion of the portable information appliance; it's easy to forget the iconic Palm Pilot most people think of as the first PDA debuted four years later. Unfortunately, the Newton was also too big to fit in a pocket.

We saw the same phenomenon play out with the iPhone, which was derided by many early critics as incomplete and overpriced. It probably was, but very quickly it redefined the notion of a smartphone and transformed the mobile industry. Six years later, many of us have forgotten this point. The MessagePad was similar: It too was ahead of its time, and it delivered less than promised -- at a high price, to boot.

Then-CEO John Sculley took a lot of blame for the MessagePad, but ironically the Newton effort was probably his best decision. Without the Newton, the Palm Pilot might not have come to be and wouldn't have been key to showing that an item the size of a phone could be a small computer. Remember, the BlackBerry of the time was a messaging device married to a phone. The Palm Pilot evolved into the Treo devices that combined PDA and smartphone, which Microsoft picked up on to deliver the Windows Mobile OS used in the briefly popular Compaq iPaq.

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