Reflections on the Apple Newton MessagePad Failure on the Eve of the iPad

Newton MessagePad iPad As I hold on for the long wait for my iPad 3G I was inspired to pull out my Apple Newton MessagePad 120 to baseline how far Apple has come since the Newton was first released in 1993. I was amazed at how unintuitive it was to use and thought about how our perceptions and expectations of a handheld user interface have been transformed by the iPhone. Putting my thoughts into a 1993 state of mind for a moment I imagined what it was like using this thing so long ago. One thing stuck out like a sore thumb to me: The MessagePad seemed utterly and completely impractical by even 1993 standards.

I believe that its failure was guaranteed no matter how powerful its designers made it. It wasn't because of the applications or even its form factor, no its size and note taking, calendar, contacts and other apps including eMail capabilities were all fine for their day. It all came down to the user experience. Using the stylus with the on screen keyboard or worse, the built in handwriting recognition was unbearable.  This highlights something that technology companies regularly forget and it’s why Steve Jobs killed the Newton when he took back control of Apple: The user experience matters. A lot.

Steve Jobs and the iPad The Palm Pilot with its graffiti was first, then the BlackBerry with its thumb friendly keyboard and then the iPhone with its quick responding multi-touch screen. At each stage the innovation wasn’t the devices capabilities, plenty of devices have done what they did before them. The innovation was the user experience that enabled the technology and made it accessible. The iPhone's multi-touch interface made it a usable applications platform and everyday device, the app store just greased the wheels. Had Apple released the iPhone with a thumb keyboard or stylus it would have been just as successful (and boring) as every mobile device that had come before it.

So as I wait now for my iPad to arrive and I read all the articles for and against it I think most people focusing on battery life, flash support or built in capabilities are missing the point. The real innovation that will decide the iPad’s success will come down to  only one thing, the iPads user experience and how successfully it bridges the gap between humans and technology.