THE BLOG

Will the iPhone be Another Newton?

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

All of the hype and anticipation of the iPhone reminds me of the introduction of the Apple Newton on August 3, 1993. At the time I was working at Apple managing the development of the second version of Newton, the MP110. It was to become the successor to the model that was just being released, the MP100. Many of us knew that this first model had numerous flaws, although few anticipated they were as fatal as they turned out to be.

Being so close to the product and exposed to the huge excitement from the press, analysts and Apple fans, made most of us in the Newton Group blind to what would become its fatal flaw, its handwriting recognition. While we knew it was a weakness it also was better than anything before it so perhaps it would be "good enough".

Besides, there were so many other issues to deal with. Would the battery life be long enough? How would we update the operating system (there was no Internet back then), was it too big, too expensive, and could we fix the power problems that caused intermittent behavior?

The first Newton was being built by Sharp in Japan at a cost not much different from the retail price. I was responsible for developing its successors, and doing it for less cost and making it more reliable.

Nevertheless, when the product was introduced in Boston, the excitement was incredible. Units sold out quickly, and everyone raved about the design.

Back in Cupertino many of us waited for the early reviews, like a play's opening night reviews, and wondered how the product would be received after being tested. PC Magazine came out with the first review and it was highly positive. Maybe we were overly worried; at least that was our thinking.

I've been on the development teams of many products including Polaroid's famous SX-70 camera, and, as close as you are to the products, you never really know how well they'll be received until it gets into customers' hands. You don't know what features will be praised or criticized.

But it became evident in the months to follow that our worries about handwriting recognition and the difficulty of entering text were real. It would be the subject of late night comedians and cartoonist Gary Trudeau. Apple set the expectations so high that it became a natural target for ridicule.

I've always thought if the handwriting recognition was not so heavily promoted and was positioned as an alternative to the on-screen keyboard, the product would have done much better. But that was not to be and by the time improvements were made in subsequent models the demand for the Newton faded.

So what are we to make of the buildup for the iPhone? The hype is certainly similar and the stakes are just as high for Apple. Ironically, concerns voiced by analysts are the same: battery life, pricing, and especially the ease of entering text.

There are major differences. There's already a market for cool looking iPods and cellular phones. And there's a need for better ways to connect to the Internet. The iPhone will likely perform these functions with aplomb. However, unless people can conveniently input text into the device, the iPhone could be the next big disappointment.

This blog was originally posted here.