Time Machines: Apple's attempt to sell the future at CES

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Welcome to Time Machines, where we offer up a selection of mechanical oddities, milestone gadgets and unique inventions to test out your tech-history skills. In the weeks leading up to the biggest gadget show on Earth, we'll be offering a special look at relics from CES' past.

In the early '90s, Apple CEO John Sculley filled his CES keynote with a sweeping premonition on how computers and consumer electronics would soon merge into tiny, do-everything devices. When he finally took the idea to market, it was innovative, ahead of its time and ultimately disappointing. There's a lot more to the story, though.

Apple MessagePad

At the 1992 Winter CES, Sculley gave a keynote speech that delved into the future of digital devices. He offered a new theme for the '90s that involved the "reorganization of work," where technology would help us break old habits, increase productivity and redefine the workplace. The key to that shift? The personal digital assistant (PDA), a successor to his 1987 "knowledge navigator" concept that would combine applications, multimedia and network access, and, according to Sculley, lead to a trillion dollar market by the next decade. He didn't reveal any Apple products matching the description that year, but he was setting the stage for the MessagePad, a device positioned as the next big thing.

Although Sculley seems to have coined the term "personal digital assistant" during that keynote, quite a few products had already tried to tackle that market. Simple "palmtops," like Psion's Organisers, which offered contact databases, scheduling and electronic diaries had been around for years. In 1989, Grid Systems released the rugged GRiDPAD tablet that ran MS-DOS and had a stylus for handwriting input (using software developed by Grid's Jeff Hawkins). In 1991, Psion offered its Series 3 clamshell organizer that added a QWERTY keyboard and productivity applications to the package. All of these devices, however, fell short of the lofty goals that Apple and its Newton group had for its device.

During the mid-'80s, Sculley managed to reinvigorate sales of the Mac line and lead Apple in a mobile direction, starting with the 1987 inception of the Newton team and the release of the 1989 Macintosh Portable computer. (Although, at 16 pounds, "portable" was a bit of a stretch.) By 1990, Sculley felt that it was time to bring a Newton-based PDA device to market. Following another year's worth of form-factor testing, he chose a nearly pocketable hand-held design and planned for a launch at the 1992 Summer CES in Chicago. The pressure was on to move this product to its final stage, but delays began to hinder progress. There were chip changes, major issues with the handwriting recognition software and ongoing hardware deals with Sharp. In the push to be innovative, success with new and untested technology was uncertain.

Despite recent success with the 1991 PowerBook laptop series, Apple's sales figures for the next year looked grim — Sculley needed a win. He hoped that the Newton PDA he hinted at during his 1992 CES keynote would soon be at the forefront of a lucrative market. But it still didn't have a name and was hampered by delays in development and internal reorganizations within the company. When the 1993 Winter CES rolled around, Apple had an alpha Newton device to demonstrate, but it still wasn't ready for release, and while there were vague mentions of a summer launch and a sub-$1,000 price, nothing was confirmed.

Unfortunately for Apple, other companies had been hard at work developing PDA-style products of their own. At the 1993 CeBIT event in Germany, Tandy announced its Zoomer PDA, based on software from Palm Inc., lead by former Grid Systems exec Hawkins. With competition on the rise, Apple eventually shifted its official release date to coincide with the Macworld Expo in August that same year and settled on a name for its device: the MessagePad. It would be a $699 device with 4.5 x 7.25-inch dimensions, pressure-sensitive and monochromatic LCD screen and a stylus. The handheld would offer wireless messaging and modem options, connect to serial devices and even "beam" data to other nearby MessagePads.

Apple managed to sell a respectable 50,000 units within the first two and a half months, but once the initial surge was over, sales stagnated. Its Calligrapher handwriting software was still problematic, often failing to accurately read input. The failure was so public, that shortly after its release, the popular comic strip Doonesbury mocked the issue, portraying a translation of the words "catching on" as "egg freckles."

With company sales continuing to slip and the MessagePad's failure still fresh, Apple's board gave Sculley his walking papers. It seems that the synthesis of computers and consumer electronics that he had predicted would take longer than he thought. None of the early PDAs actually managed to gain traction in the market, all suffering from the inherent technological limitations of the time. Perseverance would pay off for Hawkins, though. He learned from the Zoomer's failure and reworked its handwriting software into a new product called Graffiti. In 1994, he licensed it to Apple, solving many of the MessagePad's problems. Hawkins eventually spun Graffiti into his own successful product in 1996 called the Palm Pilot. Steve Jobs discontinued the ill-fated MessagePad shortly after he returned to Apple in 1997, but it wasn't the end of the road for Sculley's "knowledge navigator." After almost a decade, the idea would rematerialize, but this time it had a new name: the iPhone.

Images: SSPL/Getty Images (MessagePad); Channel R/Wikipedia (Palm Pilot); Snowmanradio/Wikipedia (Psion Series 3)