Tim Moore, writing in The Heart of Innovation Blog, tells the story of Apple’s ill-fated Newton, the very first handheld computer with handwriting recognition, as a cautionary tale about making sure your team is focused on solving the right problem, not just the biggest problem you’re facing.
Apple’s development team tackled the problem of recognizing people’s natural handwriting, which turned out to be an exceedingly hard problem to solve. This was reflected in the functionality of the Newton, which frustrated many users. As a result, this first-ever PDA became one of Apple’s only failures.
Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm Pilot, on the other hand, took a different approach. He reasoned that it would be possible to “retrain” people to input letters and numbers using a simplified keystroke method. This turned out to be a very elegant solution – and the right problem which, once solved, led to an incredibly successful and innovative product.
I’m old enough to remember the Newton; I even bought one from Best Buy, played with it for just under a month, and then returned it. I was well aware of its shortcomings in handwriting recognition, but I never knew why it was such a problem until I read Tim’s essay.
Tim tells this innovation case history in a very engaging style. I highly recommend that you read it.