Formulated in 1687, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was a turning point in physic. In product lore, high profile gadgets that get killed are often more interesting than the ones that succeed. At the time, it was extremely difficult to get component manufacturers to build any sort of custom parts.
The result of all that work was a completely new category of device running an entirely new architecture housed in a form factor that represented a completely new and bold design language.
Garry Trudeau devoted an entire week of the strip to making fun the handwriting recognition in Apple’s new device. But as bad as Doonesbury was for its image, Newton had an enemy much bigger than Garry Trudeau. If Apple had been in a less precarious situation, I would have drilled down myself to figure out how to make it work. Internally, the sleek black design of the MessagePad 100 was referred to as the Batman concept.
Despite its relatively short life, the Newton and the thinking that went into it still resonates today.


There’s also at least one tangible thread that connects the Newton to something you likely use every day (and that indeed drives the entire mobile industry): the ARM processor.
But the real impact of the Newton was the thinking that took the computer out of the office.
The Kin, the HP TouchPad, and the Edsel are all case studies in failure–albeit for different reasons. That meant everything on the PC board had to be at right angles–which made fit a challenge. Looking to maximize battery life, the Newton team went gunning for something that could generate lots of bits MIPS per watt of power.3 The best bet for that looked to be an ARM chip. The company would announce it the following year, and the first product in the Newton Line, the MessagePad 1001 went on sale twenty years ago this week in August of 1993. Trudeau would later tell the Apple team that he had not even tried it when he wrote the series. My gut was that there was some really good technology, but it was fucked up by mismanagement. Apple owned a third of the company at the time and directed development of the ARM6 processor that went into the Newton.


We don’t use a stylus, though, we use a keyboard (which, for most of us, is likely a much faster and more efficient way to input text.) It’s our smartphone, and the whole concept of the smartphone was that it would bundle the PDA, the camera, the MP3 player, and the cell phone.
The Newton wasn’t just killed, it was violently murdered, dragged into a closet by its hair and kicked to death in its youth by one of technology’s great men. Apple, after firing Frog Design for working with NeXT, was redefining what their products could look like. Newton’s character recognition problems became the butt of jokes, most famously in Doonesbury. 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.



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