15 Years Before the iPhone, There Was Apple’s W.A.L.T.

Apple W.A.L.T. Credit: Sonny Dickson
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Apple obviously hit a major home run with the iPhone back in 2007, but what’s not as commonly known is that the company has long had its eye on revolutionizing the telephone industry. The company was prototyping concepts as far back as 1983, exploring the idea of a touchscreen desk phone back when the Apple Lisa was still a thing and the Macintosh was barely a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye.

It’s unclear how far along Apple got with the 1983 project — an image was mocked up by Frog Design’s Hartmut Esslinger, who was contracted back in 1982 to create Apple’s overall design language, but that particularly concept may have been just that — a concept image rather than an actual physical prototype.

Ten years later, however, Apple clearly revisited the idea, announcing W.A.L.T. — the “Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone” — at Macworld Boston 1993, the same year its first Newton MessagePad was released. Unfortunately, the W.A.L.T. was never actually released to the public, and only a few prototypes were ever made — one famously sold on eBay for $8,000 back in 2012, but no others have ever appeared in the public eye.

In fact, a functioning version of the W.A.L.T. has never been seen publicly either, leaving curious aficionados of lost tech history with only their imagination to work out how the advertised list of features all fit together. The device had been developed in partnership with BellSouth to be a landline telephone that would offer caller ID support (in an era when that was a fairly new technology), along with a built-in address book, fax features, a full touchscreen, customizable ringtones, and even online banking support.

However, Apple enthusiast and prolific leaker Sonny Dickson has managed to obtain exclusive, never-before-seen footage actually showing a W.A.L.T. in operation. The device was powered by Mac System 6 — the operating system used on Apple’s Macintosh computers from 1988 to 1991. Of course, it’s pretty primitive compared to anything available today, but it’s actually very impressive and cool to watch, especially for those of us who remember what technology was actually like in 1993 — an era when Windows 3.1 and Mac System 7 were still the dominant technologies, the World Wide Web had just been invented, and most people hadn’t even heard of “the internet.”

The video itself begins with the device booting up, which takes a longer time than you might expect; while this isn’t surprising for technology of that era, it also may be due to the fact that it’s a prototype. The video then goes through various features, showing stylus-based operation of menus to access address book contacts, configure fax settings, customize notifications, jot down handwritten notes, and more.

Dickson notes that W.A.L.T. was manufactured largely from PowerBook 100 parts, and a customized version of Mac OS Classic, and used a built-in hard drive for storage. A special manual accompanied the prototypes with basic instructions such as “Do not use WALT near water” and “Do not drop WALT.”

In addition to the video that Dickson shares, he has also compiled a gallery of photos of the innards of W.A.L.T., describing it as “a classic Mac blended with a Newton and a desk phone.” The images show a fully customized daughter board used between the touchscreen and other hardware, and even a full set of typical interface ports that one wouldn’t expect to find on a phone, including SCSI and VGA out ports.

As a relic from the pre-Jobs Apple era, it’s difficult to say how much of the design and engineering of W.A.L.T. inspired Apple’s future ambitions in general, much less the iPhone specifically, it’s a fascinating look into Apple design history as well as what would have been considered bleeding-edge technology 25 years ago.

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