The Original Tablet

I enjoyed Paul Thurrott’s daily coverage of CES last week. A big trade show is a hard thing to capture in prose, and Thurrott got it.

But I chuckled at this piece starting his CES coverage, “Exclusive! Microsoft to Announce Tablet PC Before Apple!”:

The tech industry is tripping over itself to promote Apple’s maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t Tablet computing device, but Microsoft has their number: I can now reveal that Microsoft and its PC maker partners will announce and then deliver their own Tablet PC well before Apple. And I have an exclusive photo of a prototype of this unbelievable, trend-setting, and innovative product…

… from 2001. The devices shipped in 2002. Almost eight years ago.

The punchline being that Microsoft’s 2001 Tablet PC initiative was the forebear to whatever it is that Apple seems poised to unveil, and Microsoft isn’t getting its due credit for this trailblazing effort. This is funny in two ways. First, however misguided much of the pre-announcement hype for the Apple tablet is, I haven’t seen anyone argue that tablet computers don’t already exist. The hype isn’t about Apple possibly unveiling the first tablet computing device; it’s about Apple possibly unveiling the first great one. I imagine Thurrott as a film critic in 1968, irritated at the hype surrounding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the grounds that Ed Wood made Plan 9 From Outer Space nine years earlier.

Second, even if you’re only concerned about who was first, shouldn’t that credit go to Apple, for the Newton MessagePad that first shipped in 1993?

Thinking of the Newton got my gears turning. It’s a fascinating comparison point for both the iPhone and whatever it is Apple is set to release. I suspect most of you reading this have never used, let alone owned, a Newton, which is a shame. They really were remarkable, innovative devices.

Our “desktop” computers’ human interfaces haven’t fundamentally changed since 1984 — keyboard and mouse/trackpad for input, overlapping draggable resizable windows on-screen, and a hierarchical file system where you create and manage “document files”. Have you ever sat back, scratched your chin, and wondered when the computer industry will break free of these current interfaces — which can be a hassle even for experts, and downright confusing (e.g. click vs. double-click) for the non-experts? Surely no one expects the computer interfaces of, say, 50 years hence to be based on these same metaphors and input methods. What’s the next step?

The Newton was Apple’s first answer to that. The Newton used new metaphors, and in many ways, better abstractions than the Mac. We sort of take it for granted with many apps today (including good web apps) that you don’t have to explicitly save changes, and that you don’t have to pick a unique name and directory path for each new thing you create. The Newton was there in 1993, system-wide. “Newton” was even a great name. Newtons were always less than Macs in terms of raw performance and software capabilities (there was never even a Newton with a color display), but at the height of Newton-mania (such that it was), which peaked while the Mac was at its technical nadir, you could squint your eyes and envision a future where the Newton UI paradigms would form the basis of Apple’s future flagship computers (and, then, inevitably, everyone else’s). Not the Newton as it was, but the Newton as it could have eventually become.

I’ve long pondered why the Newton failed. I think it defies any simple explanation. Its problems and shortcomings were multivariate — it was a confluence of factors that led to it never really taking off. Ultimately the entire Newton product line was killed by Steve Jobs when he returned to the helm at Apple. I, among many others, would argue that the Newton could have still been saved. It certainly never flourished, but it wasn’t a total market failure, either. And Palm’s success in the 1990s proved that there was a market.

I would argue, though, that there was no chance for the Newton to be saved under Steve Jobs. The whole thing was created during Jobs’s exile from Apple. I’d go so far as to hold up the Newton as the epitome of the Steve-Jobs-less Apple, both good and bad. That Apple was undeniably different in certain fundamental ways than Jobs’s new Apple. I don’t see Jobs as a Midas-type who can turn anything he touches into gold. His gifts are for leading the creation of tech products from conception onward, not for taking products created by others and fixing them. Some devoted Newton users suspected spite in Jobs’s decision to kill it — the Newton having been John Sculley’s baby — but I think it was more basic than that: he truly disliked it. Nothing good comes of Apple products that Jobs doesn’t like.

What Sunk the Newton

MessagePads were small compared to laptops (especially the laptops of the mid-’90s), but they weren’t pocket-sized. Palm Pilots were. Newtons typically cost around $800-900. Palm Pilots cost about $300-400. The price alone didn’t doom the Newton — plenty of successful gadgets cost much more than that. The problem was that it was hard to make the case in a nutshell why the Newton was worth that much.

The original Palm Pilot didn’t ship until 1996, three years after the original Newton. So it’s not like side-by-side competition with the Palm Pilot led to the Newton’s demise from the get-go. But the Palm Pilot’s success shows the direction Apple should have moved after the Newton’s 1993 debut: smaller and cheaper. Instead, they kept the size and price the same, and expanded its features and performance. If Apple had shipped a Newton OS device the size of a Palm Pilot for $400 by 1995, the world might be a very different place today. (If the Newton had been a hit, Apple wouldn’t have been in such trouble in 1996, and might not have bought NeXT, in which case Jobs never would have returned to the company.)

I think it’s OK for a 1.0 product to be ahead of its time, to be too ambitious. The trick is not to be too far ahead, and more importantly, for the follow-up products to improve practically. The Newton kept improving year after year, but not in the right direction. It kept growing in ambition. Compare and contrast with the iPhone. The changes from the original iPhone to today’s 3GS have been incremental and focused on practical concerns: performance, storage capacity, and price. Refinement, not feature creep.

The Newton was a pre-Internet concept that debuted at the start of the Internet revolution. All modern computers are now seen as communication devices. The Newton wasn’t designed around that. I’m not arguing that Apple should have somehow invented Wi-Fi in 1993, but rather that the lack of any wireless IP networking was the biggest factor that kept the whole concept from being compelling to enough people to make it a hit. The Palm Pilot wasn’t any more of an Internet device when it debuted, but it didn’t have to be, because it cost less.

The Newton had incredible technology. But there’s a big difference between something that works well and something that’s amazing only insofar as that it works at all. The nutshell memory everyone has of the Newton is its flawed handwriting recognition, famously mocked by both The Simpsons and Doonesbury. But the Newton’s print recognition quickly got pretty darn good. I had a MessagePad 130, and later a Palm OS Handspring Visor. The print recognition on my MessagePad was just as good as the Graffiti recognition on my Visor — without any requirement to learn a new notation system. What never worked reliably for me on the Newton was cursive handwriting recognition. It was amazing that it worked at all, and surely Apple put a ton of work into it. But it wasn’t good enough to ship, and they included it anyway. I think the Newton would have had a better reputation for handwriting recognition if it had done less, by only accepting print notation.

One of the hallmarks of Apple under Jobs is that they tend to ship only features that work great, even if that leaves many features not there at all. (Exhibit A: copy-and-paste in the iPhone OS.)

The iPhone’s design is governed by practical concerns. What are you expected to do with an iPhone or iPod Touch? Just look at the bottom of the home screen, in the app dock: phone calls, email, web surfing, movies, music. That’s what you do with an iPhone. Those are things people find exciting and fun.

What could you do with a Newton? Notes, calendars, contacts. All of the Newton’s primary features are mere secondary features on the iPhone. Worse, the Newton lacked good syncing. The lack of good syncing oddly limited the Newton to the scope of a paper notebook/organizer — an island unto itself, rather than acting as a client to data primarily stored elsewhere. Not so for the Palm Pilot (especially on Windows, where Palm’s syncing software was much better). The relationship of a Palm Pilot to your computer was crystal clear — it was a pocket-size device that synced to your computer as a peripheral. The relationship of a Newton to your Mac or PC was nebulous. And it was portable, but most definitely not pocketable.

I’ve long harbored this theory that, out of hubris, Apple’s Newton team purposely designed the Newton more as a standalone system than a peripheral for Macs and PCs — in much the same way that the original Mac had no compatibility (or even similarity) with the then wildly-popular Apple II. The Newton was Apple’s Next Big Thing and they didn’t want to position it as a subservient satellite device that revolved around a Mac or Windows PC. Such hubris isn’t necessarily wrong or inherently doomed. It worked out well for the Macintosh, for example. But it’s risky — they bet big, went for broke, and lost it all.

It’s eyebrow-raising that “too big” and “too expensive” were the major knocks against the Newton, and here we are facing the arrival of the mythical Tablet, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, has a big 10-inch diagonal screen and will cost around $1,000. But I’d argue that the Newton wasn’t too big, too expensive, period — I’d say it was too big and too expensive given what it offered. That’s why Palm succeeded where the Newton failed. Apple went for “tablet computer” but only had features worthy of a handheld peripheral.

The difference between success and failure is almost never just one factor. It’s the balance between many factors. The tradeoffs. Palm made much smarter tradeoffs with the Pilot than Apple did with the Newton.

Today, though, no company makes better tradeoffs than Apple. And you certainly can’t argue that Apple, today, doesn’t understand the differences between portability and pocket-ability.