Newton is dead. Long live eMate

Apple has finally killed off its Newton handheld range, but fans of the eMate need not mourn. Cliff Joseph reports
Apple Computer's decision to end development of its Newton product range spells the end of the Newton's troubled seven-year life. However, its companion product, the eMate 300, isn't quite as dead as it might seem. In fact, it's only the Newton software that's being abandoned. The eMate's elegant, clam-shaped hardware design will almost certainly reappear in a new version next year.

The problem for Apple is that the Newton software is completely different from the Mac OS, the operating system that it uses both in its desktop and laptop Macintosh computers. And, after losing almost $2bn in the past two years, Apple simply can't afford to continue developing two separate operating systems. Besides, the one unique aspect of the Newton software was its handwriting recognition. But that never worked well anyway, so it makes sense for Apple to focus its efforts on the Mac OS.

The plan, then, is to develop new versions of the eMate that are based on the Mac OS. However, without the Newton's handwriting recognition software, the original Newton MessagePad - the one with the stylus that lets you write on to its screen - is gone for good. This decision will be doubly disappointing for fans of the MessagePad as, just a few months ago, Apple was preparing to launch its Newton division as a separate company. Craig Sears-Black, an executive with Apple UK, moved to California to work with the new company and, in an interview with The Independent, discussed plans to license Newton technology for use in a range of home electronics devices.

Not surprisingly, the figure of Steve Jobs is behind this decision and many Newton users are accusing him of killing off a product that was finally starting to achieve some success. Last May, shortly before taking over as Apple's CEO once more, Jobs attended a conference where he dismissed the Newton as "that scribble thing". It is worth pointing out that the Newton was a pet project of John Sculley, the man who forced Jobs out of Apple back in the late Eighties. Some have suggested that killing the Newton is Jobs' way of getting revenge and eliminating the last traces of Sculley's reign at Apple. But all this speculation ignores the simple fact that the Newton never really made any money for Apple, and its demise was almost inevitable.

There's no denying, though, that the Newton has had a lasting influence on the computer industry. It was the first PDA - personal digital assistant - and gave rise to the new generation of hand-held computers that are now becoming popular. There had been hand-held devices before, such as Psion's early Organiser, but these were limited devices designed for simple tasks such as storing names and addresses. The Newton was much more ambitious. It was a full-blown computer that you could hold in your hand, and its handwriting recognition system was genuinely innovative.

"You can't really say that it was a failure," says David Millar of Apple UK. "It did create a new category of hand-held devices." The problem with the Newton, though, was that it was too ambitious. The handwriting recognition in the first models failed to live up to Apple's hype and the device quickly became a laughing stock. Later models were much improved, but the Newton's credibility never recovered from that initial blow.

The sad irony is that Apple has once more developed innovative technology only to see the market swamped by a less sophisticated imitator from Microsoft. Just as Microsoft's Windows dominates the desktop computer industry, so its Windows CE operating system looks set to become the standard for hand- held devices.

But if we've seen the last of the Newton, the eMate will continue. The eMate is basically a Newton with a proper keyboard. It was developed specifically for the education market, and has been successful in schools both here and in the US.

"The eMate has been tremendously successful and there is no way that we would abandon it," says Brendan O'Sullivan of Xemplar, the company that distributes the eMate in the UK. It's also true that Steve Jobs is passionate about the education system, and the reason Apple decided not to create a separate Newton company was so that it could retain the patents and the design team involved in the eMate.

"It's not strictly true to say that the eMate is dead," agrees Steve Loynes, a spokesman for Xemplar. Loynes says the company will continue to sell and support the existing eMate for the rest of this year, by which time the new version will be ready to launch. Loynes also points out that the current eMate will be two years old by 1999 "and you'd expect a new version to come out by then anyway."