Looking back: Apple’s Newton line was discontinued 18 years ago

Feb. 27, 1998, was a sad day for many folks. It was the day that Apple announced it would discontinue further development of the Newton operating system and the MessagePad and eMate products. I was a fan of both hardware devices.

The idea for a personal digital assistant was first introduced by then-Apple CEO John Sculley in 1987, and the Newton project was initiated in 1990. The Newton prototype was announced two years later. In 1993 the Newton MessagePad was announced just shortly after Sculley resigned, ironically. Unfortunately, the MessagePad ended up as the butt of many jokes (including a famous “Doonesboro” cartoon) because the handwriting recognition, a vital part of the device, didn’t work properly and would often misinterpret the written text.

By 1995, only two years after the release of Newton, Apple’s CEO Michael Spindler was looking for possible investors for the Newton project. In January 1996, when Spindler left Apple and Gil Amelio became CEO, Apple was in dire straits (the often-used term “beleaguered” certainly fit at that time).

Everyone expected Amelio to try to sell the Newton project but he announced that Apple would keep the Newton and would continue developing for it and improving it. At that time Apple had spent an estimated $500 million on the Newton project. By 1997 Amelio tried desperately to sell the Newton division, too. At that time the eMate 300 [a Newton with a built-in keyboard] was able to increase the Newton’s sale numbers; however, Amelio predicted that the Newton cost Apple $15 million each quarter. In May Apple announced that the Newton division would become an independent company: Newton, Inc.

Amelio resigned on July 9, 1997, and Jobs returned to Apple. Newton, Inc., was quickly reabsorbed into the mothership proper again. A new and improved Newton, the MessagePad 2100, was released. It was probably the best Newton yet, but it was too little, too late, at least in Jobs’ keys. In February 1998 Apple officially discontinued the Newton project.

At the time, Palm dominated the PDA market and Apple was looking for ways to cut costs and trim production after some staggeringly unprofitable years. Canceling the product caused an uproar among Newton fans, but Jobs wouldn’t relent. Still, the past six years haven’t stopped developers and users from continuing to support the device with hacks that have kept it going. There are hacks for iTunes support, MP3 playback and 802.11b wireless networking.

Apple also licensed the Newton technology to other companies. For instance, Siemens acquired a license and produced the NotePhone, which was based on the MessagePad 100. The NotePhone (actually sometimes called the Newton NotePhone) itself was either produced only in small quantities or just as engineering prototypes. It was a phone with a digital optical character recognition diary, modem support, autodial features and the capability to handle fax and e-mail. Meanwhile, the Newton’s handwriting technology has evolved into Mac OS X’s Inkwell feature.

It’s been estimated that 20,000 Newton users are still active, about a tenth of what the system had at its peak. They’re keeping their machines alive by cannibalizing old systems they pick up for cheap from grey market resellers and auction houses.

Why do folks have such attachment to the Newton? The Newton’s handwriting recognition—widely maligned during the device’s early years but later made much more robust and easier to use even than Palm’s Graffiti technology—may be one answer. 

Another is sentimentality. Yet another may be the fact that, despite their flaws, they were pretty awesome devices overall. I enjoyed my MessagePads and eMates immensely, and used them to take notes during my newspaper days.