The PC industry has a lot to thank Apple for

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One day when we look back at the last few decades in tech, we will realize that one of the most influential products ever released was, in fact, one that failed. Years ahead of its time, the Apple product unleashed many of the technologies that define consumer electronics today. 

What is it? The Apple Newton. 

Now, hear me out.

What was the Apple Newton?

Developed by Apple, the Newton was one of the first personal digital assistants ever made. A handheld gadget capable of understanding handwriting, it was years ahead of its time when it appeared in 1993. But cost and limited functionality meant it was eventually canned when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs returned to the company and closed the loss-making Newton product division down in 1998 (as he struggled to rescue Apple from extinction). 

Part of the original Newton team, Albert Chu, spoke with me about the Newton in 2003. “Newton was good technology,” said the then-vice president of business development at Palm. “It had a lot of great features, but when we launched it, it was not launched as part of Apple.

“Yes, it was ahead of its time and was a great exploration, but it was just not ready for primetime: handwriting recognition did not work, for example.”

It also suffered from a lack of connectivity, which blunted its potential.

While it didn’t succeed, Newton still casts a shadow over today’s tech industry, not least because its designers included many key members of the iPhone design team, including Jony Ive and a who’s who of luminaries who helped craft the Mac. (Newton even throws a little shade across generative AI as it had its own intelligent assistant tech that attempted to let you perform tasks using natural language.)

But perhaps the most important contribution to today’s tech world is something you can’t easily see.

From the acorn grows

While developing Newton, Apple was forced to search high and low for a suitable processor. That story had a few twists and a couple of turns, but in the end a small UK firm called Acorn was selected. That company had created a processor that delivered excellent computational performance at low power. Apple invested $3 million in Acorn to help it build a new revision of its Acorn RISC Machine chip. That chip ended up powering Newton, and also became the name of the company: Arm.

You should be in no doubt about the importance of the chip reference designs Arm continues to create. These reference designs are then tweaked and adopted by other companies, including Apple, which uses Arm-based chips across iPhones, Macs, and iPads. Arm CEO Rene Haas, recently explained how Apple’s move to use its reference designs in Macs, “woke up the industry on the art of the possible.”

This acorn grew.

And fell a little further from the tree

Arm’s designs are also the processor reference designs emerging in Apple Silicon competitors, including Qualcomm’s current hot hope, the Snapdragon X series, which is arguably of fundamental importance to the future evolution of the wider PC industry.

What matters about these processors is that they deliver computational performance at low energy — precisely the challenge Apple had to solve with the Newton. It’s a challenge that seems even more relevant today, as both energy security and climate change demand a reduction in energy use, even while the ongoing AI revolution poses ever larger strains on energy supply.

Computational power at lower performance was relevant for the world’s first PDA at the close of the last century; these days it is becoming a more complex and existential problem that impacts every industry and every person. 

A moral debt

To this day, the PC industry carries a moral debt to Apple for the development of the graphical user interface (GUI), and adoption of keyboard and mouse. That tomorrow’s PC industry now seems to rely on Arm chip designs shows us the influence of Apple’s failed product was — and remains — incredibly important. 

It is hard to ignore that if robust mobile internet had been available at the time the Newton appeared, we would almost certainly still be using these devices today.  To some degree, we do. 

Think of the many Newton technologies adapted and improved by Apple for use in iPhone, and the extent to which competitors also chose to emulate that device in their own smartphones. 

Think of the processor inside these devices and the importance of their progeny to the future of the big PC firms. Think of the user interface and ideas pertaining to mobile productivity the Newton first explored (albeit replacing the stylus with a finger). 

Think of all these things and it should be clear that this important and influential product deserves a very special place in tomorrow’s history of today’s technology. Now, spend a few minutes watching Apple’s early 90’s promo video for Newton and think how many of the technologies it championed are driving your day today.

Please follow me on Mastodon, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

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