One of the products often pointed out as the sterling example of an Apple failure is the Newton MessagePad. The product, which launched in 1993 only to be axed in 1998 by the newly returned Steve Jobs, was ahead of its time in many ways. The man who took the project under his tutelage in the early 1990s was then-CEO John Sculley, who recently spoke at a South Florida Technology Alliance event about the Newton and the ARM processor that powered it.
According to Sculley, the handwriting recognition capabilities of the Newton were never meant to define the device. Instead, “It was really much more about the fact that you could hold this thing in your hand and it would do a lot of the graphics that you would see on the Macintosh.” There was no microprocessor available at the time that would let Apple do graphics-based software, so Newton project lead Larry Tesler came up with the idea of having Apple design its own microprocessor.
The result was the ARM processor, a joint venture between Apple, VLSI, and Acorn Computers. The processor not only provided the functionality required for Newton, but was also power efficient. Without the ARM processor, the iPhone might never have taken off — every iPhone uses a derivative of the ARM core used in the Newton.
Sculley’s talk is included in the video embedded below. Especially interesting is his comment about foreseeing mobile computing as a multi-billion dollar business — something he was ridiculed for in the early 1990’s.