Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Apple Newton: Updates and Corrections

For my article in the March issue of the Dii team's Perspectives publication, I discussed the Newton, a tablet device that Apple launched in 1994. Although the product was discontinued a few years later, I stated, "the Apple Newton is not yet extinct. Hardcore fans still use and maintain their Newtons and trade tech fixes and tricks online." This became even clearer to me upon publication of the piece, when several Newton fans and owners rose out of the online community to offer corrections, updates, and opinions of the product. In light of their feedback, I wanted to clarify some of the points that were made and offer my own perspective.

First, a correction of some details: early Newton models had 4MB of ROM instead of 2MB, and later configurations had up to 32MB. OS-level multitasking was a feature of the product, and fans still debate the handwriting recognition feature - many claim it remains unrivaled, while some cite it as a major flaw. And while I called the Newton a "touch screen" product, users navigated the device with a stylus. Newton enthusiasts from the Newton Talk listserv also took issue with my comments about the poor battery life, large size, and heaviness.

Which leads me to two points I want to make: the purpose of Perspectives, and my own personal background. The Dii Perspectives were never meant to be a comprehensive report on any subject; we provide a concise background, but our strengths lie in an analysis of trends and what that might mean to marketers. While I regret the inaccuracy in some of the technical details in my article, I stand by its "thesis:" despite its innovations, the Newton had several design and user-experience flaws that Apple later corrected with future products (such as the iPad) to great success.

Second, I wanted to discuss my own personal background. As a member of the Millennial generation born in the late 1980s, I was a child when the Newton came out and certainly wasn't aware of the technological advances it represented. Millennials grew up in a world of touch screens, pocket-sized devices, and on-the-go connectivity. To us, the Newton does have a touch screen - you just use a stylus instead of your fingers. And it does seem large and heavy - given that it weighs about the same as three or four iPhones. My generation doesn't even bother to write into our devices and wait for handwriting recognition to kick in - we just speak at them and watch them follow our commands.

Our Perspectives are designed to spark debate, and so I fully appreciate and enjoy all the comments, corrections, and attention this article is receiving. And with that said, feel free to post any further thoughts in the comments!


  1. my main complaint with your original article was the complaint about battery life. most Newton models with fresh batteries would often go for a month of regular use before needing to swap batteries. plus, the choice to use flash memory instead of volatile RAM to store data, as in early Palm models, meant that a dead Newt battery or botched swap did not mean losing your data.

  2. The lessons that Strategic Marketers should draw from the Newton experience are:

    Listen to your research.
    Limit the feature set to keep costs down and to ensure project delivery.
    Don't talk about it until its developed.
    Focus on user enjoyment.

  3. @genghis I agree with all your points, except "don't talk about it until its developed." I think this one is a toss up. Sometimes this helps build excitement -- but then you have to deliver.

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  5. @Carlen The beauty of not talking about it until its developed means that there is no external pressure to release before its ready. The Newton project was characterized by press announcements of the Newton project. Expectations were built into a frenzy. The feature set wishlist was long and complex so development dragged on and on. As expected release dates came and went, the disappointment turned into derision. Apple had to release just to protect its credibility. And they did, but the technology was not up to meeting market expectations. It took Apple 4 further years before they had a Newton that delivered the user experience the first Newton should have. Since the Newton, Apple has learnt not to talk about products in development. No talk -> No pressure to deliver before you're good and ready -> Minimize chance of disappointment.