The Newton is dead, long live the Newton!

Many years ago I used to work within Lord Weinstock's GEC empire - specifically within a telecoms group known as GPT (GEC Plessey Telecoms). GPT was regarded by many as the manufacturing arm of BT, having manufactured and supplied "System X", a central office telephone exchange that made up a significant part of the UK's telephone network. GPT also made a nice PABX called the iSDX.

At one stage, GPT partnered with Siemens, of Germany. When I joined GPT as product marketing manager for IN (Intelligent Network) services (0800 and similar) I was looking for other applications to which we could apply the same technology.

Rummaging around the Siemen's product portfolio I came across this rather cool phone - a combined telephone and Apple Newton. This got my imagination running - what could this be used for?


Marketing is all about creating solutions to problems. Some may say that marketing creates a problem which then has to be solved, or even that marketing is a problem, period. Which is distinctly unfair.

For 30 or so years the VHS cassette ruled the domestic TV scene. I remember the first VHS tape recorder I saw - I was babysitting at the time with my then girlfriend (some years before my stint at GPT, being a teenager at the time). It had a plastic wood finish, top loading, with lots of buttons to press. Oddly enough my girlfriend was also top loading and had some buttons that needed pressing...

But for all of mankind's ingenuity as a race we totally and utterly failed to ever get the user interface right on the VHS machine. How many slipped disks this devices was responsible for as adults crawled undignified on all fours to get the wretched machine to work, only to find one's delightful child had been stuffing food in it for the last few days...

One of the features of the Newton was that it had a fully programmable infra-red beam. Interesting. VHS recorders had remote controls that used IR beams... even more interesting. Could the Newton be used as a VHS remote control? If so, how?

Intelligent Network (IN) applications use massive databases. It turned out that all the UK TV listings were then owned by part of the BBC - they simply syndicated the content to other publications such as newspapers and magazines.

So we met with Auntie Beeb to see if we could get access to the database through the telephone network. We could, for a fee. I forget how much. Things started to stack up.

We spoke with a Newton software development company and specced out an application that would interrogate the TV listings database. You could, by using the Newton interface, specify what kind of programmes you were interested in, and the application would interrogate the TV listings database to find those shows.

At one stage an attempt was made to control VHS recorders using programmable codes - VHS Plus I think it was known as. So each program listing already had a "catalogue" number in the database. All we had to do was extract this code from the database entry, squirt it at the VHS via the programmable IR beam, and the VHS was programmed to record the show!

A master-stroke!

Think of the convenience! Think of all the health bills saved as no more backs put out! But of course this Newton phone was a tad more expensive than the average phone, so what else could we do with it?

We were rocking and rolling a this stage. It was a surreal time as all this was "skunk works", below the radar of the official product management process, one designed for managing submarine development. A fine process - a brilliant process, but one so expensive to service that in reality no products my team ever devised would ever make any money...

But what else could we use this device for? What other list-oriented activity takes place in the home? Or... in the supermarket! Shopping lists...

We went to see Tesco's. Back then, even the joke of broadband we have today was a twinkle in the eye and all internet access was dial up. Yet people were designing virtual supermarkets at great expense - a pointless exercise as the bandwidth couldn't cope and in any case, a glorious full colour rendition of an apple bore no relationship to the apple picked up and dropped into your shopping basket - everyone knows what an apple looks like.

So lists - that's what people use for shopping. Simply create lists on the Newton of product categories - and most people buy the same things week in week out. The shopper presses "buy", the supermarket packs and despatches via DHL and the food gets delivered.

The ring tone you hear doesn't come from the phone, but from the exchange. And that's fully programmable. Going "off hook" is an IN "trigger" - the IN database engine sees that you have picked up your phone to make a call and sends the dial tone to you. It's a comfort noise.

But it could be anything. So we suggested to Tesco's that products could have vouchers printed on them that could be collected and saved. When enough vouchers were collected, they would be submitted and the value would cover, say, a month's free telephone calls. Instead of receiving the dial tone, the caller would here a message "This call is sponsored by Persil" or whomever. We called that "pre-call advertising".

A staggeringly brilliant ecosystem of ideas. Fully costed, it all worked out. Was leading edge stuff at the time, the nice man from Tesco's thought it was wonderful.

But alas the nuclear-submarine product management process and the civil service attitude that went with it prevented us from taking this concept to market.

Which was a shame as it was a very exciting period.

Now, of course, TV has changed, downloading almost anything at anytime has become if not the norm, then hardly difficult. The Newton has long since died a death, only the be reborn in spirit at least with the iPhone. And VHS tapes.. what ever became of them?