Remember the Apple Newton? I was an enthusiastic fan of this early "personal digital assistant" (PDA), and I used the MessagePad 100 and MessagePad 120 models on a daily basis from 1994 through 1999. Today I own the ubiquitous Palm Treo 650, which is to the Apple Newton what the Space Shuttle was to the Wright Flyer. But the fundamental idea of a connected, networked PDA originated with the Apple Newton in the early 1990s.
The Newton failed in the marketplace for a variety of reasons, but the primary sticking point was that the revolutionary ideas embodied in the Newton were too far ahead of the available technology of its time. The state of computer hardware and network infrastructure in the 1990s simply couldn't fulfill the Newton's grandiose vision. Most consumers felt let down when the device didn't live up the hype, but others found the concept extremely compelling despite the flaws in its execution.
The reason I'm waxing nostalgic about the Newton is that Apple's iPhone, unveiled at Macworld yesterday, immediately struck me as the logical culmination of the Newton concept. Sure, the iPhone makes voice calls, but that's not the main draw for me. As I see it, the iPhone is a wirelessly networked handheld computer running an open and powerful software architecture (Apple's OS X, a Unix variant), with voice calling as one of its many features.
The fact that the iPhone runs OS X means that the possibilities for extending and customizing this device could be nearly limitless. With the addition of wireless cellular, WiFi, and Bluetooth networking, Apple has completed the original vision for the Newton.
The irony here is that one of Steve Jobs' first actions as the newly returned "iCEO" of Apple in 1997 was to cancel the Newton project -- a move that caused public protests by Newton fans on the Apple campus in Cupertino. The decision, painful as it was, made good business sense at the time: Apple was in trouble and needed to focus its efforts on the Mac.
But now, 10 years later -- with Apple in its strongest financial position ever -- Jobs has revived the Newton concept in the form of the iPhone. More power to him. I want one.