by: Design Translator

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 blogger JT, 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) is 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

Original Post:

Leave a Comment