I had promised in my immediate MacWorld 2007 keynote reflections that I’d do a more in-depth article on it later but on reflection the Keynote really was just the iPhone so you’re getting this article instead!

In the buildup to his big announcement of the iPhone Steve Jobs showed us a time-line with other great Apple innovations, he was very selective though. Probably one of Apple’s most revolutionary products was the Newton, the first PDA, and it was a flop! On the other hand, the iPod with it’s really simple UI was also a great Apple innovation, and it has taken over the world! So much so in fact that the terms iPod and MP3 player are interchangeable in many people’s minds! Regardless of what happens I believe we will look back on the iPhone as something new and something special. The question is, will it be looked back on like the Newton, revolutionary, great, ahead of its time, but ultimately a failure, or like the iPod, a revolution that took over the world?

[tags]iPhone, Apple, iPod, Newton, MacWorld[/tags]

Apple NewtonLets have a closer look at the Newton. It came out in 1993 and basically did everything that the Palm would start doing in the late 90’s, including hand-writing recognition. Sure, the first hand writing engine was not so great but Apple replaced it with a new one which was fantastic and very intuitive. To delete text you just scratched it out, to select text you circled it, and, if the handwriting recognition got a word wrong, you just double-tapped it to get a list of possible words to replace it with. Simply put, it was better than the system Palm conquered the world with, which didn’t adapt to fit your writing style but instead made you re-learn how to write its way. I had a palm and I can still write the Palm way but really, when I think about it, it’s insane that I took the time to re-learn to write just to use a Palm Pilot!

But hang on a sec Bart, if the Newton was so great why was it such a flop? Well, as I see it there were three reasons:

  • The poor handwriting recognition in the first model – Apple ads were pushing this feature but it wasn’t as good as they said. Sure, they fixed it but many people don’t seem to have been prepared to give Apple a second chance.
  • It was too big – It was supposed to be a computer that fit in your pocket but it didn’t actually fit in any normal person’s pocket! This is where Palm had a real edge, the Palms were not much smaller, but they did actually fit in your pocket!
  • PRICE – They bloody things were about a grand! You can’t make a product popular if it costs that much!

Now, lets compare that to the iPod. Simply put, Apple side-stepped the three issues above. Sure, later iPods were better than the first one, but right from the start the iPod was easy to use and it worked. It was branded as ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ and this time it really did actually fit in your pocket! Finally, iPods have never been cheap, but compared to Newtons they are a steal!

The iPod was not an immediate success, but it grew continuously until it picked up enough critical mass to just snowball and become totally dominant. The ingeniously simple click-wheel interface is a paragon of HCI perfection so the iPod doesn’t scare people. It looks cute and cuddly and even my Mum can use one!

So, now lets look at the iPhone. Firstly, Apple didn’t bin the technology in the Newton. They held on to it, and for years now there have been rumors that Apple were working on a touch-screen based hand held device to follow on from the Newton. Now we know they were, the iPhone! This obvious continuation of the Newton heritage makes you wonder why Steve didn’t add the Newton to his slide, perhaps it’s because he wasn’t in Apple during the Newton’s hey-day, or perhaps it’s because he doesn’t like to think about Apple failures, I guess we’ll never know (or care!).

From what we have seen of the iPhone’s interface Apple have applied all they learned from the iPod to the iPhone. The interface looks very simple, very stylish, very intuitive, and VERY pretty! You seem to be able to do a lot with very little effort which is a very good thing for a hand-held device.

Apple have clearly taken the good ideas from the iPod and applied them to the iPhone but can the iPhone avoid the pitfalls that killed the Newton? We can’t say for sure yet, but lets have a look regardless. Firstly, a lot will hinge on just how usable the new touch screen interface is. Seeing Steve use it during his demo it looked like it was very simple to use. He did hit the wrong button once but each time he typed text it was flawless and all his gestures seemed to work first time every time. We won’t really know how good the touch screen gesture recognition is until we get these phones into our hands but provisionally I’ll say it looks like they have the interface well worked out.

Have they solved the size problem? yes! The iPhone sits beautifully in the hand and fits easily into your pocket. I think they’ve got the size just right, if it was much smaller it would be useless to anyone with an adult sized hand and if it was much bigger it wouldn’t fit in your pocket anymore!

How about the price, well, I think their US prices are pretty fair. Sure, it’s not cheap, but it’s not Newton expensive either, in fact it’s FAR from it. In today’s money the Newton must have cost about one and a half grand, so the iPhone is about a third the price! The bottom line is that the iPhone looks like value for money so I don’t think the price is going to kill it.

Finally, Apple seem to have learned one more lesson from the experience of having the Palm blow their Newton out of the water, they have patented the hell out of the iPhone. Steve made it very very clear that Apple would be guarding its 200 iPhone patents viciously. There will be no Palm-like copycat coming along to steal the show this time!


Based on all this I think we are looking at the next iPod and not the next Newton. I think we witnessed the start of a real revolution in computation. I think the iPhone will be Apple’s next big thing.