The Apple Newton shipped 25 years ago today

On August 2, 1993 Apple Computer launched the Newton MessagePad. In development longer than it was on the market, the Newton was one of Apple’s flashier failures. Born with the Newton was the notion of a “personal digital assistant” and portable pen computing. You could manage a calendar, jot down notes (with Newton’s initially maligned handwriting recognition), store your contacts, and…send a fax or two.

It’s not hard, however, to see the Newton as the prototype of what virtually everyone carries around in their pocket today: a computer that you can take out into the world with you. Newton ran an early version of the ARM processor, the descendant of which lives inside the current iPhone. The space in time between the ’90s Newton and mid-2000s iPhone was occupied by a parade of short lived, pen-based PDAs from Palm, Handspring. Sony, Microsoft, and others.

And let’s not forget how the Newton put Doonesbury firmly on the map.

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Apple’s Newton, 20 years on

Wired’s Matt Honan takes an interesting look back at the first PDA:

Newton was conceived on an airplane. That’s where Michael Tchao pitched the idea to Apple’s CEO, John Sculley, in early 1991. The company would announce it the following year, and the first product in the Newton Line, the MessagePad went on sale twenty years ago this week in August of 1993. It was Apple’s handheld PDA–a term Apple coined to describe it. By modern standards, it was pretty basic. It could take notes, store contacts, and manage calendars. You could use it to send a fax. It had a stylus, and could even translate handwriting into text. Well, sort of. At the time, this was highly ambitious. Handheld computers were still largely the stuff of science fiction.

It’s fascinating that Apple (and later Palm) thought that handwriting recognition should be the default method of input instead of an onscreen keyboard, even though people had been using keyboards for decades to write words faster.  Palm’s Graffiti shorthand language went so far as to make you learn a whole new way to handwrite letters.  Crazy.

Android fragmentation, 2013 edition

Peter Ha at Gizmodo:

In 2012, there were some 3,997 distinct Android devices. This year there are a whopping 11,868. Eight versions of Android are currently in use and 37.9 percent of users are running Jelly Bean, the latest version of the mobile OS. Samsung’s apparent share of the market is 47.5 percent.

Check out the visual chart they posted to illustrate this point.  Samsung completely dominates this space, leaving little if any profits to the competition.  Meanwhile, Apple enjoys a 93 percent adoption rate of iOS 6 as of June 3 across just 9 unique devices (iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads).

WWDC 2013

After half a year of almost total radio silence, Apple came out swinging this week with a two hour keynote that had a lot to prove.  The bullet point recaps are everywhere online, so instead let’s look at a few major themes from the presentation.

Design

Mobile and desktop technology have evolved in the mainstream to the point where the term “fashion” can be used with a straight face.  Apple’s message this week was that the current version of iOS looks dated, inconsistent and, well, out of fashion.  What’s interesting here is that Apple also seem to acknowledge that they may not always be the trendsetter in this regard.  There’s a lot of the Google+ aesthetic throughout the new mobile OS, and certain navigation elements have a Windows Phone feel to it.  Functionally iOS 7 borrows some tricks from all the competitors (not to mention iPhone jailbreak hacks and WebOS) and tries to refine and redefine them into a cohesive experience.  It will be interesting to see how this new iOS evolves by the time it ships.

On the hardware side, Apple released the long awaited Mac Pro.  Say what you will about its lack of expandability or the trash can/R2-D2/Pringles can look- this machine is unlike anything anyone else has ever released.  It represents everything Apple stands for- it’s bolder in design than the 2000 Cube as it breaks with the past more than the original 1998 iMac.  This is a machine that virtually anyone would recognize from 20 yards away.

Secrecy

Seriously, how did Apple manage to keep the lid on the Mac Pro considering how long it’s been in development?  Last year Tim Cook claimed that Apple was going to “double down” on secrecy, and it looks like he was successful in that regard.  Across the board Apple was able to keep a lid on things like no keynote since the original iPhone.

Apple after Jobs

Not to dwell too much on the Mac Pro, but it struck me that this could very well be the first major piece of new hardware to emerge in an Apple after Jobs.  It’s possible that the iPad mini beat it to the punch, but this is more than just a shrunken-down version of an existing product.  If anyone was wondering whether Apple still had the ability to push the norms than this box puts that to rest.

In many ways I feel like this was truly the first post-Jobs keynote, even though technically it was not.  There was a confidence in the presenters that seemed to stem from new ideas and new creations, ones that originated after the company’s founder was gone.

Tim Cook

Speaking of confidence, Tim Cook has come into his own as Apple’s leading persona to the world.  I think back to the iPhone event in the fall of 2011, just before Jobs died.  I thought his performance was admirable under the circumstances, but it took him a while to really own it the way he did this past Monday- he was comfortable in the role and you could tell he was ready to swing back at the “Apple has lost its mojo” press stories swirling around his company.

Cook has also forged a new path that his predecessor might have disagreed with.  The firing of Scott Forstall and promoting Jony Ive to head up both software and hardware design is a clear break from the past.  Forstall was a brilliant but caustic personality that Jobs admired, and he was a strong proponent of the skeuomorphic touches of green felt and leather stitching that have been scrubbed from the new versions of OS X and iOS 7.

 

Apple has kicked off the second half of 2013 with what looks like an accelerated schedule of new releases and updates across most of their major projects, both hardware and software.  But perhaps more importantly we are starting to see signs of Apple transitioning into a post Steve Jobs existence.

I’m not so sure about that iPad mini

Predicting the release of Apple’s medium-sized iPad has been the national pastime for the tech press this year.  I would argue that it may be a very long wait.

Practically no one who follows Apple announcements expected the “iPad mini” to be announced alongside the iPhone 5.  The conventional wisdom was that Apple would shine the spotlight on the iPhone for several weeks to guarantee a huge rollout, and then schedule another event in October to unleash the not-too-small, not-too-big iPad.

But then Apple announced the new iPod touch.

The latest generation touch now has the same larger screen (vertically speaking) as the iPhone 5, along with a host of other significant changes.  And it’s priced at $299.

Which begs the question: what would they charge for the iPad mini?

Pundits predicted that Apple will price the still mythical device in the $200-$250 range, which is well below that of the new touch.  I suppose the iPad mini could be built with cheaper components than the new iPod- a non-Retina screen, slower processor, lesser storage capacity, lousier cameras- all to drive it down to the price of something like the Kindle Fire.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1) Apple would suddenly be undercutting a new high-margin product with something slightly larger, cheaper, and slower.

2) Apple is not in the business of selling crap.

Let’s address the second point first.  The battle cry for the small-ish iPad reminds me of a time in the distant past (3 years or so) when pundits declared that Apple would face certain peril if they didn’t create a super-cheap laptop to compete with the surging netbook market.  Back then there was a range of $200 laptops available at your local Best Buy that ran Windows or Linux on cramped screens and were powered by yesterday’s technology.  Profit margins on these devices were razor thin, and Apple just doesn’t duke it out for scraps at the bottom of the market.

So how much profit would Apple make on a $200 iPad mini?  Not enough.  Amazon is willing to go there with the Kindle Fire, but Amazon doesn’t mind barely operating in the black.

So, what if Apple decides to charge more than the iPod touch’s $299 price tag for the iPad mini?  It would avoid the undercutting I mentioned earlier, and it would sit neatly between the price points of the touch and the the $499 iPad.  That makes even less sense.  Why? Because the iPad 2 parked in that slot at $399, and some believe it’s Apple’s best selling tablet.

Any way you slice it, there’s little if any room for a device like the iPad mini to slide into the current lineup.

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire is ad supported

The Verge reports:

Amazon’s new lineup of tablets don’t just differ from the original Kindle Fire in their hardware. Like last year’s cheapest Kindle e-reader, all three new models — that’s the Fire, the HD 7, and the HD 8.9 — will display Amazon’s “Special Offers” promotions and advertisements on their lock screens. Unlike the low-end Kindle, however, Amazon isn’t offering the devices in more expensive, ad-free models, nor is it making mention of any way to opt out for a fee.

Those aggressively low Kindle Fire prices are making more sense. There’s no doubt that Amazon’s profit margins on tablets are slimmer than Apple’s, but by subsidizing them with ads it shows that Amazon is no longer willing to give them away at cost.