Cool Things: The Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, Sweden

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Here’s one completely out of left field. However, believe it or not, there is actually a strong Apple connection. ran a piece last weekend on a very unique museum in Helsingborg, Sweden dedicated to memorializing notable failed products. The museum is the brainchild of Samuel West, a psychologist who according to the article, “specializes in studying creativity and work.”

If you take the time to read the article, the concept makes a little more sense, and you can see that it isn’t a joke. Mr West takes the museum very seriously, and isn’t looking to take unnecessary shots at companies or just have a cheap laugh at their expense. Explaining a little about his reasons for collecting items synonymous with failure, West says, “I got tired of all of this glorifying of success, especially within the domain of innovation where 80 to 90 percent of all projects fail.” There is a lot of truth in this statement, and often learning from such failure can lead to great success down the road.

A notable example of this in the museum’s collection comes courtesy of Apple. Well, at least Apple of the mid to late 1990s.

The original Apple Newton, and all of its follow-up models until the too late and too expensive MessagePad 2000, are definitely synonymous with failure when it comes to public perception. This device was a perfect example of Apple before the return of Steve Jobs. It was a bleeding-edge product that was well out in front of more mainstream PDAs that would come a few years later. The first couple of models shipped with handwriting recognition that didn’t work well (and was publicly lampooned in several ways), had iffy battery life, were very expensive, and at a time when Apple was really on the ropes in the computer market, didn’t have any Windows compatibility.

Despite the early struggles, Apple would eventually turn the Newton into a robust and powerful product with the MessagePads 2000 and 2100. I was just getting into using PDAs at that time with some Windows CE devices, and I remember very clearly that the Newton was considered to be the best in class mobile device by a wide margin. Unfortunately, because Apple went the power device route, the late MessagePad’s market was extremely limited by price, and as such, they became niche devices. Unfortunately, the only thing the mainstream remembered about the Newton was all the early bad press. It was hard to forget when the early Newton became the butt of jokes on both The Simpsons and the popular cartoon, Doonesbury.

Even though Apple learned so much through the years of Newton development and fixed most of the notable early issues like handwriting recognition and lack of Windows compatibility, there were just too many strikes against it in the end. Apple had turned the MessagePad into a great piece of hardware, but when you are too early to market, it is easy to miss where things will head once the technology becomes more mainstream. Palm’s less ambitious, but simpler and more affordable PalmPilot became the first truly popular mobile device, and was the winner of the early days of the PDA. With Apple in need of a new and more organized direction and clarity in their sprawling product offereings, Steve Jobs killed off the Newton in early 1998.

Despite the ultimate failure of the Newton, we can look back today and see some of the things that Apple learned from the product line, and how bits and pieces of it made their way into more sucessful later products. First of all, we know that a big reason for the failure of the Newton was that it was too big and more powerful than it needed to be. These also made the Newton far too expensive. We can see a pattern of greater simplicity and a focus on more targeted mobile products under Steve Jobs, starting with the iPod just a few years after the demise of the Newton. Simply put, Steve knew when to say, “No,” and boy did that pay off.

There are also bits of design here and there that made their way into other Apple products. Just as a preface to this, I have used eBay and other sources to collect a few older PDAs over the last few years.

Some of them were ones I owned from 1998 on, and others were devices that I never had a chance to purchase when I was a newly-married graduate student with limited means. I actually owned a MessagePad 2100 briefly a couple of years ago, but found that even 19 years removed from its demise, it is still expensive to buy and keep up a working device.

However, I do still have an offshoot of the Newton MessagePad, which was the eMate 300. This was a portable clamshell device with a keyboard that ran the Newton OS. It was geared toward eduction, but also became very popular with journalists because it had a great keyboard, and its battery life dwarfed that of laptops of the time.

See any resemblance to anything you may know? How about this much better known Apple device?

They obviously aren’t exactly the same, but the family resemblance is unmistakable in the handle, the plastic body, and the overall shape. The eMate had a great utilitarian design that was rugged and portable. The Steve Jobs-lead Apple simply dressed up the concept, paired it with their wildly popular iMac colors, and turned it into their consumer-class laptop: the iBook. Every great design has a beginning, and sometimes that beginning is born of learning from failure.

Another response to failure can be to leave the situation you are in and try something new. In an ironic twist, an ex-Newton developer, Paul Mercer, founded the company Pixio in 1994. This is the company that would later create the operating system for the original iPod. This OS was eventually acquired by Apple for continued use in its portable music devices. The Pixio OS still powers all iPod devices that don’t run iOS, and during the heyday of the iPod, was the most widely used embedded OS in the world. Again we see several direct lines from the Newton to later, more sucessful Apple products.

The main reason I decided to write about this museum was because of the Newton’s inclusion, and its place in Apple’s history. While many would draw parallels between it and the iPhone, I personally see it as the spiritual predecessor of the iPad. It was meant to be as powerful as a computer of the time, but more portable and with better battery life. It had an external keyboard accessory. It had modems and Ethernet network cards available. Then you have the eMate, which was very obviously meant to be a faster and more streamlined version of an early laptop computer.

What Apple was trying to do with the Newton in the 90s points directly to what they are doing with the iPad Pro today, right down to the external keyboard and stylus. The biggest difference is that now Apple has both the technology and the experience to make such a thing a reality. When you consider that a lot of the designers who have shaped the future of mobile technology at Apple were already there when Steve Jobs returned to the company, you can get an appreciation for just how much must have been learned from the failures of the 1990s. It’s good to think about the fact that a failure can be a springboard to something far better and more rewarding in the future, and there is no better lesson on this than a look at Apple’s past. So, the next time you see a reference to the Apple Newton, don’t think of it so much as a failure, but rather as a seed that would grow into something far greater down the road.

Are there any former Newton owners out there? Anyone still have one of these mythical beasts? If so, I would love to know what you thought of it, and what you think of its inclusion in this Museum of Failure. You can reach me in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.

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3 thoughts on “Cool Things: The Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, Sweden”

  1. I owned an original MessagePad and a Newton 2100. There were some advanced features in the Newton OS that made it a great productivity tool.

    The most important feature was that any application could extend another application. That is to say you could buy apps that added new functionality to other applications you already owned. Any app could be extended. This breathed huge amount of creativity in Newton software development.

    The Newton database system, called the Soup could also be extended in a multitude of ways. It was possible to link data from two separate programs from different delevopers together or add new data elements to an existing database.

    There were lots of other features but these two are ones that most impressed me and that I still miss. Apps today are too siloed and that makes improving them impossible to do outside of begging the original developer to add a feature.

    P.S. I used my Newton well into the the late 90’s.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Charley. I appreciate some insight on the device. I’ve read about how the Newton handled data in a global fashion, so that all apps could share and use it. The Newton OS was far ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

  2. I still have three Newton models (can’t bear to throw them out) from the original MessagePad to the 2100, as well as a job lot of eMates that I got at the last minute to use on teaching courses. As a consumer product, they were ahead of their time and I was disappointed with Steve’s decision to kill them off, but subsequently understand the reasons. I wrote to him to protest, but of course he didn’t listen. I never got into the guts of programming them, but used some nice tools put out by George Henne and friends, particularly a kind of HyperCard for the eMate.

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