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Newton, Smartphones, & How Qualcomm Might be Rewriting History

pdq[1]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.

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Mike Cane January 3, 2013 um 11:23 am

What you also don’t know: There was a Qualcomm prototype of a phone that was running PalmOS that connected *directly to satellites*. I was two degrees separated from the tester is how I heard of it. Lots of things happen out there that we never see or hear about until years and years later.

@glhancock January 3, 2013 um 12:20 pm

I could call down the street and ask … if this is a vital point of earth quaking importance.

KarlB January 3, 2013 um 12:45 pm

The claim of being "the first," by itself, isn’t worth much. The technology wasn’t ready for a practical smartphone until well after the pdQ 800, as evidenced by the pdQ 800’s lack of success in the market (or a glance at its clunkitudenous picture). So even if this story is true, it wouldn’t be cause to "point and laugh at Apple." Indeed, the Newton itself was cause for plenty of pointing and laughing at Apple’s expense in those days, and I imagine it would have been a lot louder if they’d tried incorporating a phone into the already-oversized thing.

Mike Cane January 3, 2013 um 2:32 pm

fjtorres January 3, 2013 um 2:32 pm

The Newton was dead from the day Jobs returned to Apple.
He had a little list, oh yes he had… 😉

User January 3, 2013 um 5:08 pm

Don’t want to be an ass, but Symbian was born in 1996. Whether these devices were "smartphones" that early on, it’s debatable. But Qualcomm certainly didn’t have the first smartphone.

Blackberry also got started in 1999, the same year as the pdQ 800.

Nate Hoffelder January 3, 2013 um 5:21 pm

According to Wikipedia, the first Symbian smartphone was the Ericson R380. It was released in 2000.

And the first BB devices weren’t phones. RIM didn’t have a smartphone until 2003.

Rob Hoare January 3, 2013 um 5:53 pm

Again it’s debatable what makes a phone the first "smartphone", but the Nokia 9000 Communicator I had in the late 90’s ticks most of the boxes. I could even send faxes with it. 🙂 Nice little keyboard as well, good for email and not too bad for editing documents.

Only had European GSM frequencies on it so never made it to the US market.


Nate Hoffelder January 3, 2013 um 6:24 pm

I just love it when people turn up obscure gadgetry in the comments. Thanks!

You’re right, that is darn close to being a smartphone, and since it did come out in 1996 there’s a good chance that Qualcomm saw it. It may even have had their chip inside. Also, it looks like Nokia announced a US model:

But best of all it ran on a Intel 386 CPU! LOL

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