Making the Newton

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Like every other Apple nerd alive at the time, I was aware of the Apple Newton when it came out in 1993, but I was paying a bit less attention to Apple at that point in my life. I was starting a career in a PC-centric semiconductor company, and that was the beginning of my years-long sojourn into the Windows PC world. As a result, I was unaware of some of the more fascinating stories about how the Newton came to be.

This week Stephen Hackett and Quinn Nelson kicked off their new podcast Flashback with an episode about the Newton. What followed was a couple enjoyable hours of me scouring the web and devouring articles about the Newton and the team that literally suffered and sacrificed everything to make it.

One of the articles they mentioned was a Gizmodo reprint of an article by Tom Hormby on Low End Mac, The Story Behind Apple’s Newton. It’s a fascinating tale that you should read in its entirety.

Of course I know about the original Macintosh team, and the insane hours and unhealthy stress-filled lives they lived trying to bring that machine to life, but I didn’t realize that the Newton project was a similarly intense pressure cooker.

The stress was getting to some of the engineers. Relationships strained as people spent over 16 hours every day at work. It was too much for one software engineer, Ko Isono, who took his life on December 12, 1992, three weeks before the scheduled CES demonstration.

The New York Times has a copy on their site of their story from 1993 about the Newton team, Marketer’s Dream, Engineer’s Nightmare, which I found after Googling Ko Isono’s name. It’s an absorbing read, to put it mildly.

The Newton acquired a cult-like status among its fans, and people lined up outside Apple to protest when Steve Jobs discontinued it upon his return to Apple. There are many great stories and videos about it still on the web today, and digging into them is a fun tech history diversion.

In the end though, we shouldn’t forget the people who created the Newton and the price they paid for giving their all to it and to Apple. It’s a lesson about job stress and crushing expectations of the kind often repeated throughout history, and one which tech companies have very carefully avoided learning from.