There’s a story going around today about how the Apple Newton PDA almost became the first smartphone. according to Paul Jacobs, the CEO of Qualcomm (the multinational chipmaker), his company was the first to come up with the idea of a PDA with a cellphone. Here’s how VentureBeat put it:
Here’s a bit of pre-smartphone era history for you: Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs told Charlie Rose tonight that he tried to convince Apple to put a Qualcomm radio in the Newton PDA during the 90s, but was shot down.
As he told it on Rose’s interview show tonight, Jacobs then took his personal Newton over to Palm, taped it to a Palm Pilot brochure (which was shaped just like one of the company’s PDAs), and began negotiations to put Palm’s operating system in a Qualcomm-powered smartphone.
As much fun as it would be to write about how Apple missed the chance to be the first to the smartphone market, I’m not completely sure that this anecdote is true. At the very least, it leaves out a bunch of details which paint a different picture.
I’ve spent the morning looking into this, and it does appear that Qualcomm released the first smartphone. The pdQ 800 (pictured above) came out in June 1999, nearly 2 years before any other cellphone running PalmOS or Microsoft’s PocketPC OS.
Edit: A reader reminded me that I forgot Symbian. According to Wikipedia the first Symbian based smartphone was the Ericson R380 and it came out in the year 2000.
So Qualcomm was the first, and they deserve some credit for it, but here’s where things get complicated. It’s not clear exactly when Jacobs met with Apple, but from the dates I can find I seriously doubt that Apple decided to pass on a cellular connection so much as they were more likely considering whether to kill the Newton entirely.
One important detail missing from most of the coverage of this story is that the Apple Newton was officially discontinued in February 1998 (according to Wikipedia), with the final model, the MessagePad 2100, having been introduced in November 1997. That was over a year before Qualcomm’s phone launched, and Apple could have been thinking about killing the Newton for up to a year before they made it official.
The accuracy of the anecdote above hinges on a number of details which i don’t have, like the date when Jacobs met with Apple and the date that Apple considered killing the Newton. There is a report that Newton owners saw it coming 6 months beforehand, so for all we know Jacobs might have had his first meeting with Apple after the Newton was already on the chopping block.
This time period was right after Jobs came back to Apple, during one of Apple’s darkest hours. There are reports that Jobs didn’t like the Newton or the idea of handheld devices which lacked keyboards, and if that is true then the anecdote about the Newton not being the first smartphone is far less important thatn the story about the Newton becoming an ex-PDA.
In any case, there are simply too many missing details in this anecdote. I’m not going to take it seriously.