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Apple History: Newton – the first iPhone

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apple_newton_mp_2000.gifSo, if you’re not into the iPhone it’s going to be a very long and boring week for you as far as Apple news goes. I doubt there will be much to talk about that doesn’t revolve revolve around the upcoming device. In an effort to not spread or start any more FUD about the product…today, I thought I’d take you on a trip back in time…

It was a dark time to be an Apple fan. The year was 1993, and a Jobless Apple stumbled around from one idea to the next, lacking the direction and creative vision that had steered the company in previous years. There was a product that seemed like it could change that, though. It was a revolutionary device that had started its life as a larger format tablet-styled computer, but had been re-envisioned as a smaller companion device (so as not to cannibalize Mac sales). It was the device that coined the term “Personal Digital Assistant”…

It’s name…was Newton.

It was a device that was supposed to change the world…it put the power of computing, faxing, and organizing your life in the palm of your hand. The only problem was that when it was released, it didn’t actually work like they promised. The handwriting recognition of Newton was one of its most touted features, but it had a hard time actually recognizing your handwriting. In the “Getting Started Tips” video below, you can see that Apple was aware of this, and not only spun it as a positive, but also placed the blame directly on the user (at least, that’s the impression I get from this video that shipped with every Newton), telling you to use “common sense” when writing to help Newton understand you…

The handwriting issue is probably what kept the device from ever reaching the level of success it could have. It was an otherwise impressive digital assistant, and extremely ahead of its time. It’s clear when you look at the interface for the Newton that the layout and design of the OS influenced the look of the Palm Pilot and almost every other PDA that followed it. In fact, you can even clearly see it’s influence in the interface on the iPhone itself.


The terrible advertising campaign (which you can see a sample of below) also didn’t help sell the device, in my opinion. This wacky ad campaign seemed to steer the device in a more “fun” direction than I think it was intended. Newton was designed for business users…not kids…and for the most part, this advertising campaign belonged on Nickelodeon more than it did on 60 Minutes.

The Newton limped along from 1993 to 1998 and saw a variety of models released, ranging from the initial release, to the MessagePad series, and finally the more laptop-like eMate.


Like almost all Apple products, the Newton developed a dedicated, albeit small, following, some of which continue to use their Newton’s to this day. You can find sites dedicated to the device online with a simple Google search, and community members ready to tell you why the Newton was, and still is, great.

When it comes down to it, the device was ahead of it’s time. The question is…is that time now? The iPhone bares more than a passing resemblance to the Newton in a variety of ways. From the interface (which is obviously more visually stunning on the iPhone) to the applications, there are some very definite similarities…but…there are as many differences as their are similarities in the devices as well. The iPhone is certainly no Newton 2.0, but I think the success of the iPhone will ultimately depend on how well Apple learned from the mistakes made with the Newton.

In the coming weeks we’ll know for sure.

Kokou Adzo

Kokou Adzo

Kokou Adzo is a stalwart in the tech journalism community, has been chronicling the ever-evolving world of Apple products and innovations for over a decade. As a Senior Author at Apple Gazette, Kokou combines a deep passion for technology with an innate ability to translate complex tech jargon into relatable insights for everyday users.

6 thoughts on “Apple History: Newton – the first iPhone

  1. Excellent post. I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed the similarities between the two devices. Strange that I collect old computers (including Macs) and I still haven’t gotten my hands on a Newton, though.

    To eBay!

  2. OT:


    I just wanted to let you know that I managed to go to
    a Gravis Shop (a german Mac reseller) and get some hands-on a Mac mini.
    What shall I say … it looked flawlessly, and I ordered the 1.66 GHz version
    with RAM bumped up to 1GB. Hopefully it will arrive this week,
    and I can start my “switchers adventure”.

    Feels a little bit like back in the days when I was awaiting my
    first Atari800, or the Amiga later on 🙂

  3. I agree the Touch or Iphone as the next Apple Newton
    Or am I wrong…. If someone could get that thing to run ClarisWorks Spreedsheet, word prossesor and DataBase Plus do all the other great things it does… I would have bought have ordered one the day it came out… Or have it run Palm Os 5.0
    Its an Idea.

  4. What kept the Newton from having success, was not the handwriting recognition which was nearly flawless, but its high price point and its weight, it was heavy, real heavy.
    It would have been a good product 2 generations after it got canceled. A really good device, but Apple didn’t like it, so it got canceled.
    A further problem was its connectivity or rather non connectivity with Windows and Linux. Windows was doable, Linux was almost impossible, but none of them were easy. And revolutionary as the AppleScript was, the documentation for it was lacking for a long time. And since revolutionary means radically different, it was hard to get stuff done on it. And there wasn’t a lot of software for the Newton, since open source still was a niche thing, getting applications was near to impossible for a student like me.
    I got my 2100 in 1990, when I finished high school. I used it through college, but in the end it was just too heavy and too limited. Which reminds me, since I got internet halfway through college and even was an early internet adopter, maybe the lack of internet was a problem too. No information, no blogs, no tech gossip and no software were available for a long time, except the pricey business solutions, which were sold at the Apple stores.
    I am still looking for my next device, Windows PDAs didn’t cut it, no real battery life, screen too small. I am looking at a Nokia N800 now. I just want to read stuff with it. Somehow nobody manages to get that right. Light, long battery, big screen, no keyboard, can read pdf, no funny DRM or special tie-ins and the deal breaker, can be bought in Europe.
    If I can put some addresses in it and manage my calendar I am happy. Oh and I don’t want it to be able to phone. Sometimes I need my small mobile (fits into the tinniest pocket), sometimes I want to read (without any phone near me) and sometimes I want to be able to read, while I phone.
    So still waiting …

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