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Before iPhone: Apple’s Earlier Forays Into Cell Phones

The long-rumored iPhone is not the first instance of a phone running on an Apple operating system.  That distinction belongs to the Motorola Marco, an early licenser of the Newton platform.  Another, less ambitious product to merge wireless and an Apple-OS was the PowerBop network in France.

Looking back at the history of computers, everything is cyclical.  Every five years or so, there is an invention or product that changes everything and is quickly adopted by other manufacturers.  The Apple II was the successor to the primitive and graphics-free microcomputers of the mid-seventies.  The Macintosh was the successor to the arcane microcomputers of the early eighties.  The Newton would be the successor to the desktop metaphors that made computers more approachable, but it had outlived its usefulness, at least in the eyes of Steve Sakoman, the man who started the Newton group in 1987 at Apple after working on a MacPhone project with AT&T that fell through.

The Newton as originally envisioned was supposed to be the size of an A4 sheet of paper that would completely eliminate the need for a desktop PC.  It would have a completely open and extensible architecture, allowing for users to add new features and software as they became available. 

The device was to be powered by 2-4 RISC processors from AT&T called the Hobbit (which was also used in the BeBox, which was designed in part by Steve Sakoman) and a cadre of DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) to power speech recognition and synthesis.  The project was prodded along by John Sculley, who saw the project as the embodiment of his Knowledge Navigator initiative, which would have computers outfitted with AI personalities and access to networks around the world.

Jean-Louis Gassée -- the man who had succeeded Steve Jobs as head of product development at Apple and who  authorized the creation of the Newton team -- abruptly left Apple in 1990 after a series of poor business decisions that would eventually result in the marginalization of the Mac platform and founded Be Inc. Be's plan was to create a brand new personal workstation for multimedia creation, and Steve Sakoman followed him. That left the Newton team to fall under new management, eventually being headed by Larry Tesler.

Tesler turned the Newton into a product development team and slashed specifications to get the first Newton products out to market faster.  The Newton was reduced in size and capabilities.  The Hobbit processors were abandoned after it became clear that AT&T didn't have the resources to get Apple the quantities it needed.  Instead of moving to one of the other established RISC products, like the IBM ROMP or SPARC, Apple went with the unproven but dirt-cheap ARM from one of its European competitors in the education market, Acorn.

The most notable change Tesler made in the Newton was the segmentation of the product and marketing strategy.  There would be three different Newtons from Apple (in addition to licensees like Sharp and Motorola).  A big Newton (size of an A4 sheet of paper), a midsize Newton (half an A4 sheet of paper) and a Newton Junior (almost as small as the original Pilot from USR).  The midsize Newton received all of the resources and attention for developers and after tens of millions of dollars and a brand new CEO (it's generally accepted that Sculley was booted for failing to have Newton meet deadlines and stay under budget), the Newton MessagePad was unveiled at Macworld Boston in 1993.

Sculley famously predicted that the handhelds would grow to a billion dollar a year market after the release of the Newton.  Apple couldn't do it alone, so a number of licensees would be needed to target specific niches.  Some targeted generic business users who needed a PIM on the go (Sharp, the OEM of the MessagePad) and on their desk (Siemens) but some were very unique.  The Digital Ocean SeaHorse would be able to operate underwater.  The most interesting design came from Motorola, the Marco.

The Marco was still under development at the release of the MessagePad in 1993 and would include Ardis, a brand new two-way paging network.  The original MessagePad included support for the BellSouth network two way paging network through a separate PCMCIA card, but it lacked the polish or bundled software of the Marco. 

The Marco used the two way paging for push-email through RadioMail, faxing (send and receive) and terminal access (and as a result, internet access through a text browser like Lynx).  The Marco was the object of much lust when it came out on January 4, 1995 and garnished a lot of attention from the press.

Unfortunately, despite the device's capabilities, the Marco never caught on.  Partly because of its size (the original Newton was already 1.5 lbs and the size of a half-A4 and the Marco  was even larger) and the expensive and very slow paging service.  Users found themselves paying hundreds of dollars a month plus network fees for e-mail access.  The Marco and its Magic Cap powered sibling, were quietly discontinued, though not after developing a cult following amongst some businesspeople.

Apple's other foray into the cellular world was no more successful but a lot more capable.  Instead of piling low speed wireless onto the Newton, the PowerBop integrated a wireless LAN standard being implemented in Paris and Strasbourg.  The BOP was supposed to provide voice, internet and network access to all French Telecom customers within range of an antenna.  Antennas had ranges of a few hundred yards and could support cell phones, PDA's (though none were released) or notebooks outfitted with a BOP card.

The PowerBop was Apple's entry into the Bi-Bop network.  It was a PowerBook 1xx with an antenna in place of the floppy drive.  Where internet access and e-mail on the Marco were accomplished through a somewhat chintzy BW LCD display, the PowerBop's was in brilliant color and had the added benefit of having a keyboard for quick text entry.

Unlike the Marco, however, the PowerBop was never released since the prototype networks in Paris and Strasbourg failed.  The public was simply not interested in the very expensive service.  Only a few PowerBop prototypes are known to exist.

Apple's most recent foray in the wireless world, the iPhone, looks to be more successful.  Using wireless standards and an on-screen keyboard, it negates many of the negatives with the Marco and PowerBop.  Plus, at only US$499, it will be much less expensive than either of the earlier devices.

Motorola Marco photograph from Newton Gallery.  PowerBop photographs are from Wikipedia France (licensed under Attribution Share-Alike) and L'Aventure-Apple.  Sources are linked.

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