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Apple PDA: Cheese looking for a mouse

Published on on July 3, 2001
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Many have dubbed the Newton, Apple's groundbreaking handheld organizer and one of Apple's buried treasures, as an intriguing and revolutionary failure. However, it seems the desire for a new Apple PDA is still bubbling within the Macintosh populace.

Rumors of an iPhone, an iPad, or an Apple-branded Palm OS machine predictably surface whenever a large Apple event looms on the horizon. There are often mockup images to go with these stories, clever fakes pasted together with an image-editing program like Photoshop.

Sadly, when the real Apple event rolls around, that "one more thing" Steve Jobs brings out is never the Personal Digital Assistant many had anticipated. Whether Apple has a real PDA in the works or not, Mac-users seem to want one so badly that they are willing to produce rumors and pictures in hopes that soon the dream will become reality.

Lumps on Newton's Head

Apple CEO John Sculley first introduced the concept of a PDA at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in 1992. He spoke of a "digital convergence" between the personal computer and communications systems, and the need for a new type of device called a Personal Digital Assistant to work with them.

Apple's solution was the Newton--a handheld, pen-operated computer that was powerful, feature-rich, and problematic from the start. The public's expectations of the Newton were heightened by an impressive demonstration given to the media in the Park West nightclub in Chicago, but hopes sank when the actual product rolled out more than a year later, invoking the wrath of columnists and talk show hosts.

Cartoons like The Simpsons and Doonesbury jumped on the bandwagon and ridiculed the Newton for its less-than-accurate handwriting recognition, and the reputation lasted long after the problems were all but fixed. Many also chastised the Newton as an elaborate and expensive substitute for a simple day planner. A Saturday Night Live sketch lampooned the Newton as an exorbitant notepad by introducing fictional "McIntosh post-it notes," computerized versions of the 3M product.

Shortly after Newton was brought into the world in August 1993, financial losses started piling up and Apple executives started jumping ship. It is estimated that Apple spent close to half a billion dollars developing and promoting the Newton.

The Palm slaps back

However, the Newton's primary flaw was its attempt to be an independent computer and a replacement for a desktop machine rather than an accessory. The Palm Pilot, on the other hand, became king of PDAs because it was small, inexpensive, and acted as a satellite one could use to share and organize data with a desktop machine. The Palm Pilot's strongest point was connectivity--a user could easily synchronize the Pilot's information with a personal computer by using the one-button HotSync feature, making it simple to keep everything in order. No PDA is an island, and Palm knew this.

The Whole Widget

Despite the Newton's failure, Apple is still an ideal source for the next revolutionary PDA, because Apple is renowned for creating hardware and software that can easily plug and play with each other. In order for a PDA to be truly useful as a satellite device, it must integrate with a desktop computer and act as a seamless conduit to the primary machine, just as the Mac OS integrates gracefully with Apple's hardware.

Apple, unlike most other personal computer manufacturers, produces both the computer hardware and the operating system necessary to run it, a phenomenon characterized by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as creating "the whole widget." This kind of integrated technology coupled with innovations already produced by Apple would create a product many Mac-users would find irresistible, such as a PDA that can wirelessly connect to the Internet and synchronize files using Apple's AirPort.

Turning Rumor into Reality

Steve Jobs gave the Newton project the ax shortly after he returned to Apple in 1997, and many have eagerly awaited some kind of replacement. According to an Apple press release from early 1998, the iBook was supposed to be Apple's solution to mobile computing and an adequate substitute for the Newton and the eMate. While the iBook's clamshell lid, integrated handle, and low price-point made it very similar to the eMate, it was by no means a PDA.

Although Apple has traditionally focused on building personal computers instead of computer accessories, this is no excuse to ignore the demand for an Apple PDA. A "PocketMac" that seamlessly integrates with the Mac OS would be a product many users would love to have, especially if it had a competitive price.

There is a strong market for an Apple PDA, and if users salivate over phony mock-ups of products that do not exist, Apple could profit considerably by making those myths become real.

Author's Background: Matt Johnson is a graphic design student at Wayne State College and will graduate this December. He is a Mac-user of seventeen years who enjoys creative writing, drawing cartoons, and adding content to his web site. Look for his next article about eWorld, Apple's failed Internet venture, and how Apple can turn it into a profitable marketing vehicle.