Sculley: Apple’s Newton was far ahead of its time

Too visionary. Too revolutionary. Too “out-there” for normal people to “get it” and use it.

All those phrases aptly describe Apple’s Newton MessagePad project from the early 1990s. But now John Sculley — former Apple CEO and Steve Jobs turncoat — has come out and said it.

Sculley told the BBC that the Newton failed because it was simply too ambitious:

“Newton was probably 15 years too early … I didn’t have the experience to make that judgment but we were I think right on many of the concepts.”

These earliest tablet computers used styluses for users to click on the screen and to write with. Several generations culminated with the MessagePad 2100 in 1997, a surprisingly fast (162mhz) and competent tablet by anyone’s pre-iPad standards. The 2100 finally fixed Apple’s famously-criticized handwriting recognition, which was indeed laughably slow and awful in early models.

I know. I had all of them.

The interface and features of the 20-year-old Newton operating system are frighteningly similar to today’s iPhone and iPad. A grid of icons for programs (“apps”) is broken into folders, with a row of commonly-used apps along the bottom. There’s even an “Assistant” feature.

The low-power ARM chips developed explicitly for use in the earliest Newtons have evolved into the electronic brains that power today’s smartphones.