Tiny Newton fell far from Apple's tree COMPUTERS

August 30, 1993|By Rory J. O'Connor | Rory J. O'Connor,Knight-Ridder News Service

Behind Apple Computer's long-awaited Newton lie six years of painful and sometimes contentious work on a project whose originator never imagined it would be so crucial to the company's future -- and a product that Apple nearly didn't make at all.

This "personal digital assistant" began as a tiny "pirate" project hatched by one engineer who at first planned to leave Apple and start his own company to develop it. Only a clash of personalities among his likely partners kept the project at Apple, where it was nearly killed by skeptical brass, partly resurrected by a handful of Soviet programmers and had its core software entirely gutted and redesigned in a furious last-minute scramble over the past year.

The result, after at least three major retoolings of the original concept, is a pocket-size, battery-powered device that can read handwriting, compose and send faxes, receive pages, keep track of a user's appointments or clean up a rough sketch into a finished drawing.

And it's clear that those who have toiled for years to get Newton to market feel the pressure of delivering a product that many call the key to Apple's future.

"Everyone's greatest fear is that we've put too much weight on the Newton too soon," said Michael Tchao, 30, an Apple marketing whiz who joined the Newton team in 1990 and who helped convince project leaders the first Newton should be pocket-size.

But the engineer who first conceived of Newton never dreamed it would eventually become interwoven with a host of corporate partnerships and break Apple's historic pattern of keeping its prized technologies bottled up inside the company.

Internal politics

Steve Sackoman came from Hewlett-Packard to Apple in 1984 during the throes of Macintosh euphoria and quickly found himself in charge of Macintosh hardware development. For three years he oversaw follow-up products to the original Macintosh personal computer. By 1987, he had helped start five such products, and in the process became increasingly frustrated at dealing with the company's convoluted internal politics.

"You spent a lot of time spinning your wheels. Everybody's got their piece of turf to be defended," he said. "I decided the prospect of turning out Mac clones wasn't what I wanted to do with my life."

So in the spring of 1987, Mr. Sackoman told his boss, Jean-Louis Gassee, Apple products chief, that he wanted to quit and start his own company. Mr. Sackoman wanted to design a new kind of computer, one that had communications at its heart and that didn't have to conform to any established rules of personal computer design.

"The idea was to see if the personal computer could be rethought without carrying around a lot of baggage," he said. He envisioned a wide range of devices, from pocket-size to replacements for wall-size white boards. The one he settled on was a go-anywhere model. Users could jot down their thoughts on its screen with a pen and communicate with other such devices without a complex network setup.

The idea was so appealing to Mr. Gassee that he agreed to leave with Mr. Sackoman to start the venture. They soon found themselves on a plane to Boston, where they were to meet with three other men who had expressed keen interest in the idea. One of them was Mitchell D. Kapor, who had made millions as the inventor of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Another was Mr. Kapor's friend and software guru, S. Jerrold Kaplan, whose specialty was artificial intelligence.

Personality problems

In a room at the Marriott Hotel, near Lotus' Cambridge, Mass., headquarters, the five men discussed the idea. It looked for several weeks as if the company would get started, but it soon ran into snags. The largest problem was personality: Messers. Gassee, Kapor and Kaplan, all strong-willed, realized "they would butt heads" in the boardroom, Mr. Sackoman said.

When the deal fell through, Mr. Gassee persuaded a reluctant Mr. Sackoman to let him sell then-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Sculley on sponsoring Newton as an internal research project. Mr. Sackoman agreed but made a highly unusual set of demands: Newton would have to be physically separate from the rest of Apple; Mr. Sackoman was to have complete control over the environment of the venture; and Apple couldn't force Newton to be compatible with anything that had come before it.

Surprisingly, Mr. Sculley agreed, and in July 1987 Mr. Sackoman began assembling a team of engineers and programmers -- no marketing types were invited -- and moved into a converted warehouse in the middle of Apple's main campus in Cupertino, )) Calif.

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