Newton's `Ferrari' Effect

When Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton MessagePad came out last August, Garry Trudeau poked fun at it in Doonesbury. And the market dumped on the Newton's iffy usefulness and its $600 price tag.

But even the harshest critics laid off Newton's design. It has subtly curved lines, a rich, deep color, and a tailored feel. And for that, Newton is finally getting some respect. Says IDEA judge James M. Shook: "Newton broke new ground.... It took the computer off the desk and put it into your hand." As for the criticisms, Shook pays that no mind. "When the Macintosh first came out, some people laughed," he says. "It turned out to be a raging success."

Even if Newton, a "personal digital assistant" that is part communicator and part computer, never matches the Mac's commercial appeal, it has set a standard for how such a truly personal computer should look and feel. It has what Apple Design Director Robert Brunner calls "the Ferrari" effect--sleek sculpting that says high performance.

In the fall of 1991, the six-person design team was given only eight weeks to come up with the Newton's design. They needed to create something entirely new, the company's first handheld product. They did not want it to resemble a personal computer, but a notepad--hence no keyboard and a vertical rather than horizontal design. At the same time, they needed to retain design elements that buyers associate with Apple--rounded edges, complex surfaces, and an emphasis on symmetry and icons.

John Sculley, then Apple's CEO, loved the first Newton on sight. But when he tried to slip it into his pocket, it wouldn't fit. He ordered the team back to the drawing boards. "That," Brunner says, "was panic No.1."

They had to lose four millimeters--no problem, except the components couldn't get any smaller. So they shaved a bit from the sides and went back to Sculley. No go. "We couldn't figure it out," Brunner says. "It fit in our pockets. We were so frustrated, we considered sneaking in and snipping his pocket seams." Instead they gave up some curves and shaved a little off the stylus holder. Voilaa. Sculley was happy.

Now all Newton needs is to make more customers happy.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.