Forget the Apple Phone, give me a Newton anytime!

I was amazed to find out, how extensive the Cult of Mac’s influences over the many products they cover. Even though the Apple Newton PDA was killed by Steve Jobs shortly after he re-joined Apple in 1998, the Newton community continues to defy all odds by keeping this product alive and current by updating it with technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, memory cards and even an MP3 Player!

After reading this article from Wired magazine as well as this cartoon from “The Joy of Tech”, I suddenly realized why Apple products never had a long lasting appeal to me, and after I explain myself, perhaps to you may feel the same way too.
Simply put the Newton was a revolutionary product because it had an extremely strong concept behind its development to which the final product executed it perfectly. It was meant to be a “Knowledge Navigator”. (Marketing guys don’t you dig this branding keyword? I wonder if Guy thought it up?) Anyways Paul Guyot sums it up nicely:

“The Newton was born from a vision, that of the Knowledge Navigator — a portable device that can be used to communicate and process data, like a virtual secretary,” he said. “The iPhone does not carry anything more visionary than existing products… Apple only does what others do, but better.”

And the light bulb went off at the top of my head!
I never realized it but that’s the problem I had with Apple products from the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I do acknowledge the greatness in Apple’s Industrial Design and product branding, but Apple products never really appealed to me because they were not really visionary or new. They were just re-designed and re-engineered products created a whole lot better.
With Apple Phone this is no different, and thus I am again suitably under whelmed. By the way, I’m calling it Apple Phone as, like my fellow designer bloggerJT, I believe that the iPhone name should belong to Cisco and Apple should show some respect.

“The Newton has lived on far past its termination date largely due to the amount of high-quality third-party software (and hardware) available” ~Adam Tow

However, what I’m really interested in is how could the Newton community still survive even without manufacturer support? Or even better, how can we designers create products with such a rabid following and long lasting appeal?
The key, I think, is to look at what’s wrong with the Apple Phone and why it’s not the new Newton on steroids? Accordingly to Apple Newton fans, what made the Newton unique when compared to the Apple Phone (even though both has a screen) its that..

“The Newton has still three things which will as far as I can see never be surpassed by any device because they don’t seem to have the selling wow factor, but which I absolutely require: data input via hardware; extremely reliable (never crashes, battery lasts forever, hardware very sturdy, data doesn’t get lost, always on); superior user interface for stylus based devices with very good data integration.” ~ Eckhart Kappen

Is that not the most basic requirements of what people need in today’s digital products? A product that does not “hang” and a battery that lasts?
It seems the Apple marketing machine has been extremely successful in giving people what they want in electronics but not what they need. The funny thing is people still forgave Apple for selling iPods that get scratched too easily or have poor battery life! This is a branding story that should be a case study in all marketing classes.
So if I have to hazard a guess, the way to create a product with an amazing following and long lasting appeal, the product should include the following ingredients:

Solves a problem and satisfies the user’s need: The Apple Newton, bridged the gap for PDA so well with its hand writing recognition software that it gave people what they needed a digitized Filofax. It also was a reliable electronic device in the time of products frequent displays of the “Blue Screen of Death.”
Visionary product concept, the product has a BIG idea behind it: The “Knowledge Navigator” concept of the Newton made it process data in such a way that took it not just ahead of the competition, but way ahead of the competition. The Apple phone is really just a few steps ahead of the competition, and if we look back to the iPod, pretty much the rest of the world has already caught up with it in terms of design and usability.
Flexibility: The ability for the users to customized it or rearrange its use in a manner that satisfies his or her needs even better than it could off the shelf. This key ingredient would be the most difficult one to design, over design it seems contrived, under design you fail. To me this almost means the product has to have certain simplicity about it, but yet is able to connect to a deeper and complex system. The trick is to make this seamless and well thought out. It should just work.

The last bastion of innovation seems to have been lost when Steve came back. Starting from the iMac, Apple became mainstream, and operated just a few steps ahead of the competition. Yet everyone hails Apple as innovative! More like how you define “innovation” if you ask me.
If we define “innovation” as the creation of something original and visionary, could this mean the death of innovation? In today’s ultra competitive consumer electronics market, where products are all outsourced and OEM, have short life spans and short development times, are the true product innovators gone?
I personally believe that we have just unlocked the path next evolution of Industrial Design. Creating true product innovation defined by technology that satisfies user’s needs. Hey its back to basics and we have come full circle!
Consumers at the dawn of the internet digital media age needed a way to engage it, and good Industrial Design bridged the gap. Apple was ahead of the game as it understood that.
However now, so many years after the dot com boom, consumers with the help of the internet are just too clever and tech savvy for companies to try to get away by rehashing used technology to feed consumerism by generating useless wants and not solving needs.
Unfortunately, until budgets can offset the risk of extensive R&D costs and perhaps having more designers at the CEO position running the show, we are stuck with the current crap, but if you are smart there are ways around it. The way to go about it my gentle reader is a story for another time.
Source: Wired
Further Reading:
1) Everything you wanted to know about the Newton
2) Buy your Newton here and here.
3) Albert Muniz ongoing Academic Research on the Newton Community

  • Design Translator

    January 18, 2007 at 1:35 pm Reply

    Hi Darryl,
    Thanks and please do keep in touch!

  • Darryl

    January 18, 2007 at 1:25 pm Reply

    Design Translator,
    Agreed, I love a healthy debate. And appreciate having a mature debate which has proven difficult when discussing Apple related issues in the blogosphere. Thank You!!
    I agree with your statements that Apples pricing structure tends isolates its’ market to the middle and upper class. This is a common phenomenon though. With most technologies, its first available to those that can afford it.(One doesn’t go to the BMW dealer expecting to pay Yugo prices.)
    But, those same technologies
    are inevitably duplicated, and eventually commoditized. Making them available to the masses.
    The repackaging model will continue to have a place in the industry regardless of how savvy the consumer becomes, because that vision of building a better mouse trap doesn’t exist in every company.
    On the other hand, new technologies that aren’t created by large tech firms will not have the R&D resources to envision many of the possibilities. You yourself pointed out the cost of R&D.
    I believe that its a cyclical problem. Many larger companies become constrained by their own bloat that it doesn’t allow them out of their boxes. Many smaller firms lack the financial resources to bring their dreams to the masses. They often wind up approaching a larger manufacturer to get the resources and is absorbed. Once again, technology is repackaged and the cycle begins again.
    I will concede though, through this debate, that the consumer is more savvy having become more familiar with the use of these technologies. There is however, a large group of people out there that aren’t familiar. Of course, those under the age of 25 have never known a time without PC or the internet available.
    With the last paragraph of your last post, I see where you are coming from. And hopefully designers are listening. Nothing would please a geek like me more than to see something truly new and innovative come along. It would give us more opportunities for healthy debate.

  • Design Translator

    January 18, 2007 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Hi Darryl,
    Once again thanks for taking the time to pen down your comments. First off, I like to say this is a great discussion with your very well supported and logical arguments and counter arguments. Thank you!
    Actually on the contrary, I believe that the masses are cleverer and more tech savvy than Apple makes them out to be! Therefore what I’m proposing is the “let me tell you what you should do and think” may not work anymore.
    In other words what I

  • Darryl

    January 18, 2007 at 10:47 am Reply

    You Said

    “Sure I agree they work and work well, but only if you play by their rules. Which is to buy a new iPod every year (cos your battery dies), only use iTunes and resign to leaving your music you bought online on only one computer?”

    I have been able to use my iTunes collection on 5 computers and countless iPods. As well as use other music store tunes on both devices. Apple DRM scheme allows up to five computers to have the same iTunes library. Also, iPod battery replacement is and has been a very common practice for a couple of year now.

  • Darryl

    January 18, 2007 at 10:33 am Reply

    Design Translator,
    It seems that your rationale stems from your extensive knowledge but doesn’t take into consideration the knowledge of those targeted to create mass appeal.
    Henry’s commits, feisty as they come off, makes a very fine point.
    Apple has always positioned itself as a consumer conscious company, thus the tag line “computer for the rest of us”.
    These repackaging of existing technologies almost immediately get re-repacking, by others in the industry, that didn’t have the foresight to combine the technologies the way that Apple thought to. Windows, and the Palm Pilot are great examples.
    Apple mistake has often been believing that their forward thinking bundling of technologies could not be duplicated in a manner better than their own.
    In many cases they’ve been right. But in every case the duplication hasn’t needed to be better but merely good enough.
    This is what makes Henry’s argument valid.
    Other manufacturers duplicate the technology packaging ideas that Apple has “innovated” and present it cheaper running on a cheaper Windows box and suddenly Apple appear to have nothing but a flashier more expensive device that does the same thing the cheaper gizmos.(whew, that was a mouthful!)In the case of Windows, this scenario nearly put Apple out of business.
    They’ve been able to avoid this same scenario with the iPodiTunes ecosystem because they’ve maintained their unique position as both a hardware and software developer. This has made it difficult for others to emulate Apples model. It hasn’t been for a lack of trying though.
    Where I think your argument breaks down a bit is, you appear to assume that the average consumer is perhaps half as knowledgeable as you are in the matters technology.The reality though is, we’re a sub-set of the culture. Only those of us that take the time to respond to post on a blog or spend time gaming or tinkering with their boxes know that a lot of the technology being repackaged has been around for a while. We tend to know things like multi-touch screen technology has been in development for quite sometime. But can you imagine the response when the average consumer will have when they get this in their hands. And once again Apple will the first to have brought it to the masses. Apple will be seen as the great innovator. And for doing those things, it is great as a company.
    I wish other companies had such foresight. I would like to what Apple could come up with if other companies really got out of their boxes and pushed them instead coming behind and creating cheaper “good enough” products.

  • Design Translator

    January 18, 2007 at 9:33 am Reply

    Hi Henry,
    Thanks for your comments and stopping by to visit.
    You have made extremely valid points, the blue collar, rural, the BOP and even the elderly are very difficult markets to design for. However I need to stop you there, because this is not Apple

  • Design Translator

    January 18, 2007 at 8:27 am Reply

    Hi Darryl,
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your insightful comments.
    I agree with your argument of the application of technologies is innovation in itself, and Apple

  • Henry Bowman

    January 18, 2007 at 5:21 am Reply

    “consumers with the help of the internet are just too clever and tech savvy for companies to try to get away by rehashing used technology to feed consumerism by generating useless wants and not solving needs.”
    This sounds like a case of viewing consumers through the filter of the community you know personally. Try a retirement community; a blue-collar community; a rural community; a low-income community; or dozens of other non-hip, non-elite, non-technological aggregations of consumers.
    What differentiates Apple products is that, compared to the competition, they Just Work.
    In a country where X-Boxes and Playstations fly off the shelves, in which people get tooth grilles, in which the Clapper and the Chia Pet makes a killing every Christmas, it’s entirely fatuous to complain about companies who court success and generate huge revenues by “generating useless wants and not solving needs.”

  • Darryl

    January 18, 2007 at 2:56 am Reply

    Your points concerning innovation as being lost are all very interesting. I would have to agree that you are absolutely correct in that Apple has primarily re-packaged existing technologies. This has been true since its beginging with the Apple I. However, their true innovations have been in packaging those technologies in functional ways that other tech firms hadn’t.
    All of the technologies you speak of existed before Apple re-packaged them. This indicates that other firms have always had the same opportunities to package them in innovative ways.
    Apple has often had the vision to package them in ways that consumers want to use them. Not in the ways that engineers imagine using them. They’ve also done this packaging in ways that average people would likely use them.
    Apple has created some technologies. That’s not where they developed an innovative reputation.
    When the GUI was released on the Mac, Many a tech head referred to it as a toy. That’s because programmers saw what they did with command lines and coding as special and unique. All of their experience gave them a rite of passage to make use of these technologies.
    Apple has alway made strode to bring these complex technologies to the masses. And as we all know,(despite what you may believe about the average consumer being tech savvy) consumer want things to be simple to use.
    That has always been Apples goal. Steve Jobs has always said so. Apples marketing has always suggested so.
    Furthermore, where would the use of these technologies be if the vision of their uses were left solely to those that create them.
    I don’t know about you but, I for one am very happy that I don’t have to write code in order to upload a photograph or listen to music on my PC.
    It takes vision to move technology to the next level. This is where Apples innovations exist.

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