The Mac Webb

The Case for an Apple PDA

- 2001.10.04

Apple needs a PDA to help build market share among business class users. The majority of PDA devices are purchased through or for the enterprise. As this is the market Apple has had trouble reaching, why not give them what they want?

I must come clean and admit that I am a PDA addict. I love nothing more than rushing to the front door and finding another PDA waiting to be put through its paces. Over the last five years, I have owned 5 Windows CE machines, 2 Psions, two Rex PIMs, 3 Palms and 5 Newtons. I maintain three regular machines at all times: one high-end laptop replacement, one mid-tier machine with documents and PIM functions, and one low-end machine which is my calendar and address book. My current crop includes a Compaq Ipaq (high end), a Psion Revo Plus (mid) and a Palm Vx (my low end). I tell you this only to make my next comment relevant.

No machine has ever surpassed the Apple Newton 2100!

The MP2100 was the perfect blend of form and function, with the only OS built from the ground up to work Newton 2100with the pen paradigm in mind. The interface is wonderful, and the integration of the applications was second to none. Taking a note and need to schedule a meeting with the subject of that note? Simply highlight the name and add it to the calendar.

This machine was crafted using all of the skills and acumen of the Apple design team. These excellent machines still have one the most loyal PDA followings four years after cancellation. Almost daily, I find an article or Web rumor mentioning a new Apple PDA. From Web tablets to new Newtons, I have seen them all.

Users want the company who pioneered this form to get back in the fold. I think all of us would love to pull an Apple-branded PDA from our pockets. Adding an Apple PDA seems to be a perfect complement to the Apple marketing strategy.

History

Apple was the first company to make the PDA a commercial success. John Sculley's vision of a digital assistant was refined over the course of 5 years, and the Newton business unit was on the verge of becoming profitable. Unfortunately, the seemingly bright future of the Apple PDA was a victim of Steve Jobs' return to the company in 1997.

The Newton community has long since speculated on why the plug was pulled. The rumors range from Jobs hating everything associated with Sculley to a back room agreement with Microsoft to eliminate Newton in exchange for capital. In my mind, the most logical theory is that as Jobs was working to correct the mess he inherited.

The Apple Jobs returned to in 1997 had lost focus. The product matrix looked like a family tree, and inventory and support costs were increasing. Jobs first act was to focus the company and build a core product matrix. The Apple PDAs had become so good by 1997 that they had begun to siphon some of users from the PowerBook line.

The Newton no longer fit the matrix and was killed at the height of its success. This argument makes sense - look at the Newton MP2100 and the current Pocket PC lines. Those machines handle a great portion of the average user's computing needs. Why spend $2000, when you can spend $500-800 and get a machine that handles all of your daily needs?

Knowing this, how and why would Apple want to get back into a market they created and abandoned?

Business Justifications

Lets flash forward to 2001 and look at the current Apple markets. The Apple product line has never been stronger in terms of user acceptance and quality. You need only visit the local Apple Store and see the wanton looks of shoppers as they eye the PowerBook G4 or Cinema Display.

The major weakness for Apple has been and continues to be penetration of the business market. Inferior product from other vendors rolls out to business users daily. Apple loses the market due to perceptions that their products cost too much and have compatibility issues.

This is the market that Apple needs to hit in order to increase current market share. This also happens to be the largest segment for PDA users. It would seem that offering a PDA to this group would help gain more mind share for Apple.

If nothing else, allowing users to see Apple support and get on Apple mailing lists would be a plus. My argument is that the business market is the key to growing market share and that the PDA is a good way to gain ground on that market. Accepting these arguments, what should Apple do to execute this plan?

How Should They Proceed

At the beginning of my article, I had my Newton comrades saluting. The next paragraphs will make them send me mail using characters instead of words (!@#$!@#$!@$). The PDA solution should be cost effective and not compete with the iBook line. Keep it simple and fairly low cost, and make it complement the product matrix. Here is my plan:

  1. Apple should buy Palm immediately - lock, stock, and market share. Since inception, Palm has provided a low cost product made to complement users existing machines. Buying Palm gets you a large user and developer base, along with quick acceptance as the standard PDA platform (it's still larger than the growing CE install base). Apply the Apple design sense and innovate the OS to include a few bells and whistles without making the price climb to the current $600-plus for PocketPCs. Business users will suddenly be carrying Apple products into corporate boardrooms across the world.
  2. Kill the Palm licensee program. We all remember Apple clones in the mid-90s. Has anyone seen the great selection of Handspring add on components or the beautiful Sony Clies? I would bury them tomorrow and see about licensing some of the technology from Handspring for their Springboard modules.
  3. Make integration with the Mac platform very reliable and simple to use. Add the "MacPalm" to the retail channel including Apple Stores, and then offer trade-in coupons for the current crop of Palm machines.

This plan would give Apple an immediate market share and viability. One reason Palm has had difficulties over the last few years is a lack of innovation. Apply the Apple skills to updating the OS and focus on the market, and you would be able to exploit the current user base to make sure you have a Mac product in the hands of the business community.

In conclusion, I must admit I would love nothing more than to see Apple build a new Newton running an updated Newton OS and featuring all of the bells and whistles we expect in new PDAs.

I can only dream of what might have been had the Newton continued on its development cycle over the past four years. Unfortunately, I think that dream makes little sense when placed in a business context. The PDA does make sense, and the obvious choice would be to hit the ground running with a built in installed base. A machine that complements the wonderful Apple portable line and allows business users to carry and Apple brand into the office would be a wonderful addition. LEM

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