I have always been a gadget nerd and when I first heard of the Apple Newton I wanted one.
At the time it was a totally new and different product category – “the personal digital assistant.” The device fit in the hand, was operated with only a pen, and had the ability to work with PCMCIA modems just like a laptop for sending faxes and email to online services available at the time.
In many ways it was ahead of its time and struggled almost from the get-go. The biggest problem beyond its $700 price tag (the equivalent of $1,400 today) was that the handwriting recognition wasn’t good enough for the average consumer. When it worked it was great but when it didn’t this digital device was far less efficient vs. a pad and paper. It was famously lampooned in the Doonesbury comic strip but also had mixed reviews in the press.
Apple actually released two Newtons – one was an Apple device, the other came from Sharp. But both were effectively the same device inside. Neither was very successful out of the gate.
Apple retooled and released an updated “Newton 110” the following year. That was the device I bought back in the spring of 1994. It had an updated operating system vs. the original device and worked a little better, but still wasn’t up to where consumers wanted the device to be.
It went through a number of iterations over the next four years culminating with the Newton MP2100 in 1997. But by then cheaper and smaller Palm Pilots took over the marketplace while Newtons got larger and more expensive.
Apple of course got the last laugh with their insanely profitable iPhone and iPad lines. They certainly learned from their mistakes.
I own a few Newtons in my retro collection. Here’s a video I did last year looking at how Apple’s iPad borrows a lot from the Newton’s approach to pen interfaces.