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Death of a Newton?

Perhaps I overstate the Newton’s status in the title of this article, but it appears that the Newton is being, shall we say, "de-emphasized" at Apple. Rumor has it that the Bic Newton, the tablet-sized Newton device, has been cancelled, and Apple has laid off a number of the Newton folks, mostly the hardware designers. It seems clear that there won’t be much in the way of new Newton devices from Apple in the near future, at least until the market is ready for them again, at which point Apple will no doubt have Microsoft to compete with in some form or fashion.

One possibility is that Apple is cutting back on its own hardware efforts to bolster the efforts of third-party developers who have licensed the Newton technologies. Sharp’s ExpertPad was such a close Newton clone that there wasn’t much of a reason to buy it over Apple’s MessagePad, but if Sharp suddenly released a tablet-sized Newton, it would be alone in the market and would help legitimize the market. Apple hopes that strategy will work for the Mac, since software developers are more likely to bet on a platform if the health of the platform isn’t tied to a single company. Toward that end, Apple has licensed System 7 to Acer, a Taiwanese PC-clone maker, and Acer is reportedly slated to release the first official Macintosh clone by the end of the year.

All but two of the Newton software people remain and are apparently hard at work on version 2.0 of the Newton operating system which will be both a step forward and a step back. Apparently, the Newton OS 2.0 adds a hierarchical filing structure to replace the data soup that existed previously. This both makes it easier for users to find their data (since files can be stored in specific hierarchical folders, just as on the Mac) and more difficult since every time you want a file you must navigate to find it.

All is not entirely downbeat though, and Apple France just released the Newton in France with a French operating system for FF5,490. Apple France claims that the delay was due to problem in translating the operating system into French, but by the end of 1994, there should be 50 French applications for the French Newton.

Despite the problems that the Newton faces, postings in the comp.sys.newton.misc newsgroup seem enthusiastic and upbeat about the Newton. That’s good because if the current Newton users and developers can continue to support the product sufficiently, perhaps it will only go into a dormancy at Apple, rather than being completely killed.

It’s possible that the Newton has some serious problems, or it may be languishing in the "chasm," a marketing term I learned about in The High-Tech Marketing Companion (ISBN #0-201-62666-7, Addison-Wesley), an excellent book developed and edited by Dee Kiamy. In a chapter entitled "Breaking into the Mainstream," Geoff Moore outlines a more realistic technology adoption curve than the one you might expect. Normally, you’d think that a product would start slow with the innovators and the early adopters, then pick up steam as the majority of the audience started buying it. The curve drops back down toward the end as the laggards finally buy in. However, Moore’s revised curve puts technical enthusiasts and visionaries at the early part of the curve since these are the people who will buy anything new or who recognize greatness. But before moving on to the next large part of the curve, which he fills with pragmatists and conservatives, Moore chops a section out of the curve entirely and calls this the chasm. During the chasm phase of the curve, basically no one buys the product. All the folks who buy things early already have one, and the people who wait until the product can do something specific for them haven’t yet started to buy.

Getting through the chasm is the tough part, since there’s no money coming in, and the future looks bleak. Moore recommends going vertical – that is, concentrating all resources on a very specific market segment, and once success comes in that segment, moving on to another. It strikes me that the Newton is deep in this chasm phase right now, since everyone who wants one, has one, and Apple wasn’t able to prove that a $500+ pen-based PDA is necessary for everyone. Thus, Apple’s regrouping moves make a certain amount of sense – they must sit tight on the Newton until they can bring the price down and push it into specific markets where it makes sense, such as for doctors or delivery people. Only then can the Newton pull itself back out of the chasm.

I do feel that it’s important for the Newton to hang on, not so much for the sake of the Newton itself, but for the sake of the technology embodied in it. I can do without handwriting recognition, but some of the intelligent assistance capabilities would be incredibly useful in the Macintosh environment as well. If the Newton dies, I fear that those technologies would die with it, and that would be a bad thing for us all.

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