Apple has rehired Michael Tchao, a former developer of the company’s long-dead Newton personal digital assistant, to be its vice president of product marketing, according to a report published in The New York Times and apparently confirmed by Apple spokesperson Steve Dowling.
Apple did not return an eWEEK request for comment.
Online speculation is rampant that Tchao was rehired after 15 years to help shepherd Apple’s long-rumored tablet PC into the marketplace. That device, which could see the light of day by early 2010, would potentially prove not only a challenging competitor to the netbook market, but also mobile devices such as eReaders.
An Aug. 7 research report by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster predicted that Apple would release “a touch-screen device similar to an iPod Touch but larger,” priced at somewhere in the $500 to $700 range. Munster estimated that such a device would potentially sell 2 million units in its first year of release, generating as much as $1.2 billion in gross revenue for Apple. In theory, it would fill a gap in Apple’s product line between its iPod Touch and the MacBook.
During the company’s July 21 earnings call, Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook responded to an analyst question about a tablet PC by saying, “I never want to discount anything in the future and never want to specifically answer a question on new products.” Similarly, no mention of a tablet was made during Apple’s September iPod presentation, which saw the reappearance of Steve Jobs.
Munster suggested that Apple’s tablet operating system could either be based off the iPhone OS, with apps designed for a 7- to 10-inch screen, or else a modified version of the Mac OS X that would allow for touchscreen capability. “We expect Apple to build on the multitouch technology built into the iPhone and iPod Touch along with the App Store ecosystem,” he wrote, “with an OS comparable to the iPhone’s, not the Mac’s.”
Tchao could help with the creation of such a device. As originally developed, the Newton – considered one of the first personal digital assistants – incorporated elements such as object-oriented graphics that could be regarded as a precursor to the interface of many of today’s handheld devices. It was also one of the first devices to wrestle with the hardware issues inherent in a smaller form-factor.
Although Apple will likely remain tight-lipped about Tchao’s exact role, he brings both his experience from the earlier stint at Cupertino and a later post with Nike Techlab to the table.
Despite its popularity among many Apple advocates, the Newton died messily in 1998 after roughly nine years of development.
According to Leander Kahney’s book “Inside Steve’s Brain,” the Newton project was one of dozens eliminated by Steve Jobs after his return to Apple. But unlike Apple’s other canceled devices, many of which died without a whimper, news of the Newton’s imminent demise sparked something of a backlash, complete with aggrieved protestors gathering outside Apple’s Cupertino campus to wave signs that said, among other things, ‘I Give A Fig For the Newton.’
Kahney asserts in the book: “The killing of the Newton was widely considered an act of vengeance on [then-CEO John] Sculley, who had ousted Jobs from Apple in the late 1980s. The Newton was Sculley’s baby, and here was Jobs knifing it to get revenge.”
However, Kahney adds, Jobs also kept much of the Newton’s engineering team. If any of them still work at Apple, they may soon have time to swap old war stories with Tchao as they prepare for the company’s next handheld iteration.