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It was just a year ago that Apple Computer launched the Newton MessagePad with much press razzmatazz, the full charismatic support of tech visionary John Sculley and a multimillion-dollar ad budget.

Yet within months of the big autumn ad push for Apple's entry into the brave new world of pen-based, hand-held personal communicators, analysts and users alike were calling the new product "the Newton bomb" and "John Sculley's folly." During one much-hyped public demonstration, Newton misspelled the name of its inventor as "Scully."

But with today's headlines heralding the inevitable boom in wireless communications, there are important marketing lessons to be learned from the ill-fated odyssey of John Sculley's Newton.

Business before pleasure. Wireless personal communicators, like PCs and pagers before them, must prove themselves first as business productivity devices before they can ever become mass consumer products. Alas, Newton looked like it wanted to be a consumer product from Day 1.

Get a vision checkup. Mr. Sculley, caught up in his vision of the future, over-promised and over-promoted. No product could have lived up to that billing.

Build the product before the brand. A brand name may sell soda; it isn't enough to sell technology. The first company to come up with a killer wireless personal communicator backed by strong marketing stands the best chance to lead the category.

Software sells. Hardware is irrelevant without software. Apple pushed Newton hard before the software was on the market, a sure-fire way to fail.

Read the handwriting on the wall. Manage expectations. Clearly, Newton's coolest feature was the ability to convert handwriting to type. Unfortunately, it didn't work. (The latest versions work better.) Apple's executives, PR staffers and agency partners-CKS Partners, Cupertino, Calif., and BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles-failed to anticipate the interest this futuristic feature would generate, and then were unable to manage the storm of criticism that Newton didn't work as casual observers expected it to.

If Apple had been more honest in presenting Newton for what it was-the first version of a promising new technology-then it would have been harder for "Doonesbury" and others to pummel it.

But the most important Newtonian marketing lesson may be: Don't give up on a good thing.

Industry estimates foresee 88.3 million users of wireless communication devices (from pagers and cellular telephones to a garden variety of personal communicators) by 1998, and as many as 167.4 million subscribers in 2003.

That should be enough to make any marketing-savvy tech visionary hang in there. What goes down could come up.

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