Reminiscing of 30 year old (failed) technology


I’m not the only one this week looking back 30 years at failed tech gadgets. Today in my news feed was a post on ars technia, Remembering Apple’s Newton, 30 years on.

Thirty years ago, on May 29, 1992, Apple announced its most groundbreaking and revolutionary product yet, the Newton MessagePad. It was released to great fanfare a year later, but as a product, it could only be described as a flop. Widely mocked in popular culture at the time, the Newton became a poster child for expensive but useless high-tech gadgets. Even though the device improved dramatically over time, it failed to gain market share, and it was discontinued in 1997. Yet while the Newton was a failure, it galvanized Apple engineers to create something better—and in some ways led to the creation of the iPad and the iPhone.

Odd are that you don’t own one of these. I have at least one in my box of failed pen computers of the 1990s.

What today’s article didn’t mention is that Apple spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this device. Over a billion dollars in today’s money. And still it failed. Why? The same reasons why the PenPoint devices failed, which can be summed up as timing. The Newton was brought to market years before it should have been.

Specifically, the early ARM chip Apple developed for this device was too slow, the screen was unreadable outside, that plastic pen was required as touchscreen technology didn’t yet work well, the battery didn’t last a whole day, and most importantly, there was no WiFi yet, no ubiquitous mobile data, and even if there were, this was before the rise of the Web and years before the dot com bubble brought the Web to most homes.

What I like to say (to make myself better) about not seeing that this was all too soon, is that all of us working on these devices in the 1990s were ultimately correct about mobile devices being the next wave of computing, we were just 15 years too early. The iPhone first shipped in 2007, but was at first sold exclusively in the U.S. through AT&T Wireless and exclusively by other wireless operators in other countries, and thus wasn’t an instant hit.

The iPad first shipped in 2010. It was available to anyone who wanted one. It sold millions of units in the first day it was available. The iPad sold more units on that one day than all of the handheld devices in the 1990s produces by Apple, Sony, Motorola, Panasonic, LG, Philips, Radio Shack, AT&T, Psion, and the multitude of others who also collectively spent a few billion dollars on products that were too early.

The lesson in all of this… too early is just as bad as too late.

By "Luni"


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