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As the iPhone evolves, some reflections on the Newton

If Apple wanted to, it could rearrange the components it uses in the iPhone and other products to create something worthy of being called Newton 2.0.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the official death of Apple's Newton, the world's first PDA (personal digital assistant). There were pocket computers before the Newton, but the Newton was the first device to target PDA functionality so specifically.

Peter's MessagePad 2100 Peter N. Glaskowsky

The original Newton MessagePad was not a very practical product. Its handwriting recognition was inadequate, its processor was too slow, its local storage was too small. But the ultimate Newton, the MessagePad 2100, was glorious. It was powerful, reliable, easy to use, and surprisingly expandable with third-party hardware and software.

I used a MessagePad 2100 from 1997 to 2004, and I've written about the Newton several times here because I believe there are still many important lessons that the computer industry can learn from the Newton. Previous blog posts include an overview of my Newton experiences, a detailed summary of the Newton's strong points, and an even longer list of problems that remained in the Newton until its final days.

Of course, the Newton isn't really dead. There's still an active community of Newton developers-- not as many as there once were, but there's still respectable progress being made. The NewtonTalk mailing list attracted 586 messages in January, and there are many other Newton websites including a great archive of Newton software.

Today, we're still waiting for Apple to release the promised iPhone developer kit for native applications (although Web-based development is already well supported). Third-party software can't turn the iPhone into a Newton replacement; for one thing, the iPhone can't be used with a stylus, so handwriting recognition is impossible. But if Apple wanted to, it could rearrange the components it uses in the iPhone and other products to create something worthy of being called Newton 2.0; I wrote about this topic here, too.

Will it ever happen? I don't know. Maybe Steve Jobs still resents John Sculley's role in promoting the Newton platform at a time when Apple should have been paying more attention to the Mac. But the fact remains that the Newton was uniquely valuable when it was on the market, and in the ten years since then, no other product has even come close to replacing it. That adds up to a market opportunity, one that Apple is still in the best position to profit from. I hope they give it a try.

My thanks to Morgan Aldridge at the Small Dog Apple Blog for marking the date and to EDN Senior Technical Editor Brian Dipert for bringing Aldridge's post to my attention.