Former Apple CEO John Sculley cruises CES, recalls Newton’s impact on the mobile industry and the iPad

by David Needle

January 13 2012

John Sculley returned to CES this week, an event he once keynoted. (PHOTO: David Needle)
John Sculley returned to CES this week, an event he once keynoted. (PHOTO: David Needle)

LAS VEGAS -- John Sculley seemed to be enjoying himself here at CES, having a few casual conversations and taking in the scene. But the former Apple CEO and onetime CES keynoter (in 1992) didn’t get a second look from most attendees passing by either too young to know who he is or perhaps distracted by all the shiny new technology on display.

In a brief chat with TabTimes Sculley said he’s an investor to four digital healthcare-related firms covering everything from treatment for sleep apnea to sensors you can wear for medical diagnosis and is on the board of directors of OpenPeak, a mobile device management company. 

“The CEO of one of the companies I've invested in is 23,” he said with a glint in his eyes, perhaps recalling the young Steve Jobs who was still in his 20's when he recruited Sculley to be Apple’s CEO in the early 1980s. Sculley was hired for the marketing skills he developed as President of Pepsi. 

“Steve Jobs believed computers were becoming enough of a consumer product that they could be sold like Pepsi and Coke,” said Sculley. “Now we’re seeing consumer electronics shaping innovation in the enterprise.” 

But Sculley also drove several technology initiatives even after Jobs left the company he co-founded under pressure from Apple’s Board -- and conflicts with Sculley. He promoted the famous Knowledge Navigator video Apple produced in 1987 as a kind of preview of technology still being dreamed up or in development.  The video featured a tablet style computer with speech recognition similar to the iPhone’s Siri, though in this case the speech recognition responses weren't just audio, they were given by a computer generated avatar, kind of an animated butler. 

Apple also introduced the Newton tablet under Sculley, one of many products Jobs killed shortly after returning to head Apple. The Newton, which Sculley showed off as part of his CES keynote address in 1992, featured handwriting recognition that was far less than perfect and the inconsistency was ridiculed by syndicated cartoonist Gary Trudeau in a series of strips. 

But the Newton was clearly ahead of its time and, as Sculley told a reporter from the BBC earlier this week at CES, it also helped establish an important milestone in mobile computing. 

“Well the facts are that we had to create a new microprocessor for the Newton as there was no low-powered microprocessor that could handle object orientated programming,” said Sculley. 

“So when we were creating Newton we also co-founded a company called ARM. Apple owned 47% of it, Olivetti owned 47% and the founder Hermann Hauser owned the rest. ARM not only was the key technology behind the Newton but it eventually became the key technology behind every mobile device in the world today including the iPhone and the iPad.” 

Sculley said Newton was probably 15 years too early “but we were I think right on many of the concepts.” 

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  • david
    2 years 9 months ago
    Amy, great story, thanks for sharing that. This is a pretty interesting historical footnote: "I learned why the handwriting recognition wasn't very good (Apple asked to have it tuned to accept as many writing styles as possible, rather than for accuracy for a smaller group of users) " When you think about Palm becoming so popular years with a different approach, essentially forcing users to learn its "Grafitti" language for the handwriting to be successful. --David Needle
  • amywohl
    2 years 9 months ago

    I was one of the original Newton users -- and as unsuccessful getting to recognize much as anyone else. I was sharply critical of it which brought lots of attention from its product manager and the job of chairing Newton sessions at MacWorld until there weren't any more.

    I learned why the handwriting recognition wasn't very good (Apple asked to have it tuned to accept as many writing styles as possible, rather than for accuracy for a smaller group of users) -- from the third party sw house that wrote it.

    I still have a "green frog" in my office -- the special rugged Newton for the school market, killed when Steve Jobs returned and decided more focus was needed.

    John's right -- it was too ambitious and too early, but there was still lots to learn from the experience.

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