The Newton MessagePad turns 20 this week. Or would have, if it hadn’t been killed off by Steve Jobs in what might have been a totally characteristic fit of Not Invented By Me. Wired remembers:
“The goals were to design a new category of handheld device and to build a platform to support it,” explains Steve Capps, the Newton’s head of user interface and software development who both helped dream it up and make it real. “The restrictions imposed by battery life necessitated a new architecture.” That is, with Newton, Apple didn’t just set out to create a new device. It wanted to invent an entirely new class of computing. Computers that could slip into pockets and go out into the world. In fact, the pocket was a core design requirement.
When Michael Tchao first pitched the Newton to Sculley, there were a few requirements. It would have a pen, a radio that worked on a pager frequency, forms and templates built in but that could be designed on a Mac or PC, and it would have to act as a “seamless” input device for a PC. But Sculley quickly added one more core feature: size. “The number one requirement was that it had to fit in John Sculley’s pocket,” explains Gavin Ivester, who ran the Newton’s industrial design. “We focused on width because that affects how you hold it. You need to be able to reach around with your fingertips on one side and the fleshy part of your thumb on the other to feel like you’re not going to drop it. You really only feel secure if you can turn it over in your hand and still hold it.”
People laughed at the Not Ready for Primetime handwriting recognition software, but Newton really was an amazing device. And even if Jobs did hate it, Apple’s early insistence on batter life über alles is still one of the primary design factors in iOS devices.
The next attempt at truly portable computing was at the turn of the century with Microsoft’s Windows Tablets for Pen and Stylus and Fingers and Maybe a Mouse, or whatever it was called. That floundered, too. Meanwhile, Apple was working in secret on a tablet, which became the iPhone instead, which then morphed into the iPad, which now has a million competitor Android clones.
It’s enough to make you wonder what might have been, if Newton had survived.