The Newton (1993)
Perhaps one of Apple’s most infamous early failures was its attempt at one of the first Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). In fact, it was the Newton that created the category of personal digital assistants, with Apple’s then-CEO John Sculley coining the phrase later on in the product’s development cycle.
The Newton came to an era where most “personal organizers” were calculator-like devices designed simply to store your address book and calendar information. By contrast, the Newton offered a full “Newton OS” operating system that was the first to feature handwriting recognition.
Like the Lisa, Apple bit off way more than it could chew with the Newton. The handwriting recognition was unreliable at best, the user interface was slow, and it had no shortage of glitches. Developers also had to shell out $1,000 (in 1993 dollars) for the toolkit required to build apps for the Newton platform, which meant there was a serious dearth of third-party apps available for it.
The Newton also didn’t come cheap, with a starting price of $699 — equivalent to around $1,300 in today’s economy. Combined with all the device’s other problems, it’s easy to see why there really wasn’t much uptake. Other companies were inspired by the Newton, however, and modem maker U.S. Robotics took a less ambitious approach to introduce the first Pilot 1000, which eventually became the PalmPilot after it was sold to 3Com and then spun off into Palm, Inc.
To be fair, the Newton was created during Steve Jobs’ time away from Apple, and one of Jobs’ first acts upon returning to the company in 1998 was to kill the project off entirely. However, it’s easy to see how the lessons learned from the Newton helped to inspire the iPhone years later, at least as much of an example of what not to do when developing a mobile product. It probably explains much of Apple’s slow-and-steady iterative approach that continues with the iPhone and iPad to this day.