Back in the day, when I made my living as a technologist, there was a saying that floated around among my friends and colleagues and throughout the industry: “Mediocre products marketed well defeat great products marketed badly every time.” We used it most often when scratching our heads over why Microsoft Windoze could possibly be clobbering the elegant Macintosh user experience in the marketplace.
I was reminded of that observation today when a news item crossed my desk. Strangely enough, it was about one of my all-time favorite technologies that didn’t make it. When Apple introduced the Newton hand-held Personal Digital Assistant in 1993, I was immediately taken with it. I bought an early version. I spent time learning the fairly slick scripting/programming language built to code applications with. I touted it. I loved it.
Oh, there were a lot of things wrong with it. Its size and format were bulky and blocky. Handwriting recognition became the industry’s favorite punchline. Still, I thought it was incredibly promising and I was willing to put up with the rough edges and flaws while Apple nurtured it through its premature release. But, as with so many other technology products of its day, the Newton fell sufficiently short of sales goals that, in a relatively short time, Apple killed it off. I remember a friend of mine in Apple’s research group who collected old Newton’s for replacement parts; several years later, he was still selling them. Obviously, some people found it still usable and useful.
I thought at the time that Apple demonstrated extreme impatience with this stunning new technology. Of course, this was in the days before Apple switched its focus from computing to consumer products, and the company’s financial reserves were much smaller than they are today. Still, it seemed to me then and still does that Apple failed to stay with promising but slow-moving new technologies on too many occasions for a company that touted itself as a research-driven outfit. They did a similar thing with HyperCard, a product that I also fell in love with — and clearly made a fair amount of money from — but that Apple never understood well enough to know how to market it. HyperCard lasted a little longer than the Newton and gave rise to some wonderful spin-off products from third parties (most notably for me the brilliant LiveCode language and environment I still love using). But ultimately, it was orphaned simply because of a lack of marketing insight at Apple.
Today, more than two decades later, I’m not sure we’ve significantly improved on handwriting recognition over what the Newton offered. At least, I haven’t seen any widely used commercial products that demonstrate that promise.
Oh, well. At least I enjoyed this brief trip down Memory Lane.