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The Mobile Road: Looking Back, Looking Forward : Page 2

By looking at the past trajectory of mobile devices in the marketplace, we can better understand where mobile computing is headed.

Apple Newton
The Apple Newton was in fact not the first mobile computer—Psion earned that title nearly 10 years previously—but it captured many people’s imagination prior to its launch in 1993 through Apple’s innovative user interface and marketing. In both hardware and software, the Apple Newton was well ahead of its time, and this likely contributed to its continued lackluster sales, high cost, and bifurcated user base: users and developers either loved the device (10 years after its discontinuation in 1998 it still has a strong following) or hated it (often for its much-maligned, but gradually improved handwriting recognition).

Despite licensing the platform and preparations for a spin-off of the Newton division from Apple Computer, the Apple Newton platform never really succeeded, probably due more to its high per-unit price than its initial lukewarm reception by the market. It found some successes as a vertical-market computing device, competing with embedded systems from companies such as Telxon and Symbol. The Apple Newton products became casualties of lower-cost handheld computing devices, notably those from Palm, Inc.

General Magic and Magic Cap
Starting as an internal project at Apple in the early 90’s, the Magic Cap operating system was one of two key mobile computing products released by the prescient folks at General Magic. Licensing the Magic Cap platform to multiple partners, Magic Cap enjoyed early business success, if not success in the commercial marketplace, with handheld devices, including the Sony Magic Link and Motorola Envoy, with integrated modems for email and information access through a proprietary portal. This portal, running Magic Cap’s Telescript environment, was to be run by major network operators such as AT&T and NTT.

General Magic succeeded in predicting many market trends, including ubiquitous access to email through portable devices. Unfortunately, its predictions were far too early for mass-market adoption, and they missed a critical piece: the rise of the World Wide Web. At the same time as the engineers at General Magic were building clients and servers for a closed system for carriers to operate, the World Wide Web was gaining in importance and prominence. While General Magic later made other products, including Portico, an excellent voice-activated agent, it was never fully successful. The client-side business was spun off into a separate company, Icras, in 1998, which marketed Magic Cap under the DataRover name to vertical companies for a few years. But competition with Palm and BlackBerry, then the ascendant mobile computing providers, proved to be too much competition.

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