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Apple’s Handheld Evolution: From the Newton MessagePad to the iPhone

Apple’s Handheld Evolution: From the Newton MessagePad to the iPhone MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [II]

Ever wonder how some things came to be? Just look at your phone. We cannot even imagine life without it anymore, but it is not always that we think of how much sweat and tears were put into achieving this particular invention. To be more specific, let us take Apple’s inspiring story. You have most certainly heard of an iPhone. The smartphone that most of us are so familiar with and which has a personal note given by the first-person pronoun “I” is, technologically speaking, based on the touchscreen concept which makes reading, writing and watching videos much easier to carry out. It certainly is a key that opens up a tremendous number of doors for user interactivity and we probably would not be able to give single-word answers when asked “what advantages does the iPhone bring us?”

Apple has been in business for about forty fruitful years and is considered one of the Big Four of technology along with Amazon, Google and Facebook, selling and developing electronic devices such as the iPhone smartphone, the iPad tablet computer, the Mac personal computer, the iPod portable media player, the Apple Watch smartwatch, the Apple TV digital media player, and the HomePod smart speaker. The company sells its gadgets worldwide, with 500 retail stores in 2018 and 132.000 employees. Its revenue amounts to a total of US $265.595 billion (2018), an operating income of US $70.898 billion and is worth US$365.725 billion in total assets. They began with the creation of computers, but soon enough took on an even more difficult challenge, and that is investing into tablet computers.

At the time, such technology was unheard of, but the benefits of such a device were undeniable. Its goal was to permit handwriting recognition in order to take notes, save contacts, manage calendars and even send faxes. Its main particularity, though, was its handheld size no more than that of an A4 piece of paper, making it easy to carry around. Or at least, that was the plan. The iPhone we know today is well known globally as the implementation of this idea, but what about a Newton MessagePad? It is arguably less well-known. The latter, however, was the iPhone’s ancestor, opening a door to today’s convenience, a comfort that even managed to become a necessity. 

Despite the late Steve Jobs being popularly credited with birthing this idea, it may not actually have been his, after all. While the idea for the tablet device that would eventually be called the Newton MessagePad and would later pave the way to the iPhone is said to have spawned from Michael Tchao’s mind in early 1991, another account has it that it was a business man and software consultant from Miramar, Florida, who first patented the concept underlying the iPhone in 1992 but, because of a lack of funds and entrepreneurial skills, he never translated his idea into a product. Thomas S. Ross says he invented an Electronic Reading Device as a solution to the need for carrying multiple devices for multiple tasks: “I would be at home, wanting to read books and it dawned on me that it would be nice to have a device aggregating different functions. It was somewhat cumbersome to carry around different devices for different purposes, as was the trend at the time,” he said in an interview. According to court documents, Thomas S. Ross’s device provides the possibility of reading, writing, looking at pictures, watching videos or movies, communicating and also “comes with rounded edges in various sizes” (The Guardian, 2016).

Whatever the origin of the idea, the company began working towards putting it into practice. The first step was naming this new project. Because Apple’s original logo had Isaac Newton’s picture in it as he sat under a tree, they decided to name the project after him. Resources were then poured into this project. They began with a team of engineers, but more people had to be recruited all the time, doubling the staff several times over. Things got out of hand when the employees were suffering from too much stress. They were, after all, working for over 16 hours a day, especially before the scheduled CES demonstration. Apple even had to hire psychologists to ensure the workers’ mental health was alright. Even so, only three weeks before that grand event, Ko Isono, a software engineer, reached his breaking point and sadly took his own life.

The struggle did not end there, though. Right as the Newton MessagePad was about to hit the market in 1993, just roughly 25 years ago, the team discovered some unforeseen problems. The Getting Started card that helped train the handwriting recognition was not working and needed replacement on each and every device. Another flaw discovered at the last moment was that the rubber pads on the bottom were not attached well and would fall off. The team had to glue back 800 pieces in one day. All of this had to be sorted out quickly before they could ship the product. “We were just way ahead of the technology,” laments Steve Capps, one of the designers of the original Apple MacIntosh Computers, adding: “We barely got it functioning by ’93 when we started shipping it.”

In spite of all this hard work put into creating a device that would correspond to the people’s needs, the Newton MessagePad remained impractical. It could take notes and send faxes, but irony has it that its main feature, the handwriting recognition capability, was still poor and brought its downfall, even through 8 versions going from 1993 to 1997. The product is currently residing in Sweden’s Museum of Failure for all to see and take its example. It is true, the product had failed and had to be cancelled, but the message meant to be conveyed is that even though this attempt was not a successful one, Apple moved on to other projects that were more successful. 

At any rate, the Newton MessagePad was just the beginning of a bright and innovative future for Apple. The technology created for this failed project was then available as a starting point for future projects. Without it, we might never have reached the advanced technology we take for granted and which is used in our phones every day. All this tedious work and years of failure eventually led to the oh-so-common iPhones we see around every corner. While it may well be true that Thomas S. Ross was the first to come up with the concept behind the iPhone and other devices employing similar technology, it was through the ambition of the Apple Corporation that this idea could be enriched and brought to fruition. Hence, the iPhone became a highly useful problem-solving gadget. It revolutionized the world as it enabled people to access the internet from a device in their pockets, with a tremendous impact on the world at the time.

Apart from that, photography ceased to be a hobby and became a part of everyday life. People passionately embraced photography when it was so widely accessible, and the rising social platforms provided us with a place and a reason to share our acquired skills. In addition to these advantages, features like GPS and media display opened up new avenues for innovation for consuming content or accessing services, such as Uber.

This is an example of how people can learn from their failures and should never give up regardless of the difficulties. One day, anyone one person with a great idea could bring a change to the world. 


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Molla, R. (2017). How Apple’s iPhone changed the world: 10 years in 10 charts. Available at:

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Solon, O. (2016). Man suing Apple for $10bn says he’s “very confident” about the case. The Guardian. Available at:

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