Why the Newton failed, and the iPad is poised for success

Thu, Apr 29, 2010

Analysis, Apple History, Featured, News

Note the 2 photos above. While familiar in appearance, and arguably similar in function, the two products couldn’t be further apart in terms of their mainstream success.

On the left is Apple’s Newton, a handheld PDA adored by geeks that ultimately failed to garner mainstream success. The Newton project was eventually axed by Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple in 1997. On the right is Apple’s latest product, the iPad. It hasn’t even been out for a month, is currently available only in the US, yet sales of the device are exploding. And as opposed to the Newton, the iPad was and is Jobs’ baby, a product he reportedly called the most important thing he’s ever done.

In short, the product on the left was a commercial failure while the product on the right is already on the path to commercial success. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons or insights can we extract from two revolutionary products with markedly varying performances in the marketplace?

Apple’s lineup of Newton Messagepads were undoubtedly ahead of their time, but is that the reason why they failed to gain a foothold amongst non-geeks? Amy Chow of cheerfulsw thinks so:

The problem with the Newton wasn’t any physical or technical problem. Those are easy to surmount. The problem that broke the Newton was that nobody was prepared for it.

There was no mental slot in people’s heads that the Newton could glide into.

Chow brings up a fascinating and original point – that consumers are willing to overlook technical glitches if they have a firm grasp of what a product is and what it’s supposed to do. That may sound like mumbo jumbo, but look no farther than the millions of consumers who were and are more than willing to deal with AT&T connectivity issues as long as they get to keep their iPhone. Think about it – people will grit their teeth and deal with phone problems on a freakin phone because everything else the device does outweighs its cellular shortcomings.

Chow continues and writes that the critics who criticize the iPad for being nothing more than a “giant iPhone” are entirely missing the point.

They’re disappointed that the iPad is so… well… unsurprising.

Therein, of course, lies the genius.


The design, delivery, and timing of the iPad couldn’t be more different than the Newton. The iPad wasn’t a surprise at all. It’s the capstone in a family of devices.

There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely.

“Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”

It doesn’t matter if they utter that phrase in distaste. That little sand grain of dismissal becomes the core around which will form a pearl of understanding.

When Steve Jobs first demoed the iPad, he described it as a device that falls into an entirely new product category, but because the iPad is a natural extension of the iPhone, the utility and purpose of the device still resonates with consumers despite its new product categorization, and it’s this difference, Chow argues, that will lift the iPad to heights that the Newton was never able to reach.

Steve knows, better maybe than anyone else, that you don’t just slap a product out there and hope it will succeed. You have to prepare people for it, first.

And it’s better that people misunderstand a product, at first, than not understand it at all.


Of course, there are a plethora of tangible reasons to explain why the Newton failed and the iPad seemingly won’t, but Chow’s take on things provides a unique and fresh perspective that factors consumer psychology into the equation.

For a lot of people, technology is a scary thing, and the timing of the iPad couldn’t be more on point. To wit, a big ass tablet device from HP running Windows 7 will undoubtedly elicit quite a few, “What the face is that?!” The iPad on the other hand is more likely to evoke, “It’s just a big iPhone, what’s the big deal?” As Chow writes, “it’s better that people misunderstand a product, at first, than not understand it at all.”


, , ,

4 Comments For This Post

  1. PaulG Says:

    Right it’s not the tablet for tablets sake (an HP Slate with Win7), that’s already been done and failed and why the Windowsverse doesn’t get it, but a tablet people are already mostly familiar with in the iPhone and iPod Touch and then “get” once they finally hold the iPad in their hands. And once you do, the bucks come flying out of your wallet.

    When people call it a large iPod Touch it’s almost the best thing they could have said about it. It’s EXACTLY what I’ve wanted since getting my iPhone so IMHO it’s spot on. One thing you really have to respect about Steve Jobs is he REALLY thinks every aspect through as other companies typically fall very short on and why they fail. And he doesn’t design stuff for geeks but for average consumers, which he thinks of himself. Jobs may think too most people are “Bozo’s” and in that he’s probably correct but Bozo’s have a lot of money to spend.

  2. Constable Odo Says:

    Consumers do not want a HP Slate or anything running a full version of Windows 7 to read some books, watch some videos or play some games. What would be the point of it. Only geeks want something like the HP Slate so they can tinker with it. Consumers want to USE the iPad, not play with the OS. The iPad OS is basically transparent and that’s what consumers want. Since the OS is simplified, people say that the iPad is just a big iPhone or iPod Touch, but that is a compliment in itself since so many people just love using iPhones and Touches. There are so many average consumers I know that just tolerate the OS. They just want to use the applications and the less the OS gets in the way, the better. That’s why I know it has to be mainly geeks that are begging for a full desktop OS on a tablet. That will be a financial disaster since consumers are looking for simplified computing devices to use. They’ll gladly give up the depth of a complex OS for something easier to use.

    It’s like the argument that everyone wants Flash. They don’t really. They really want to view the content that Flash delivers. They want the content but right now only Flash is used. If another means comes about to view content that will be just as good for them.

  3. John Davis Says:

    The reason the tablets didn’t make it is simply because people don’t want a desktop OS miniaturized. Gates and crew just didn’t get it. Most people don’t want complexity. They just want to get on with it. I’ve given my iPod Touch or iPhone to kindergarten kids and watched them open apps, play games, listen to music, watch YouTube, all with no hint of instruction from me. These were Japanese kids and I had the OS set to English!

    This is what we need. A GUI that’s so transparent it’s almost invisible. With that in place, we can just get on with it and use the hardware for what we want to do.

    I live in Japan where the iPad isn’t yet available. But I’ve been waiting since I lobbed out 1,000 dollars – when the dollar was worth considerably more than today – for a Newton 2000.

    The iPad is EXACTLY what I want!

  4. Rich Pryor Says:

    They are two COMPETELY different animals. Newton attempted to be a PRODUCTIVITY device. iPad is a media CONSUMPTION device.

eXTReMe Tracker