Book Review: Defying Gravity - The Making of Newton

Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton is a special and unique book. Photographer Menuez and author Kounalakis were provided extensive access to Apple’s Newton team throughout the product’s development over multiple years to document the process of its creation. When they finished writing the book in 1993 at the time of the Newton’s release, it was unclear whether the product would be successful. Of course it was not successful, but the book is still a gripping read as one experiences the ups-and-downs of high pressure product development at John Sculley era Apple. It also provides an incredibly high-bandwidth look into the early 1990s technology industry.

From its experimental layout, to its color palette and cultural references, Defying Gravity is very early ’90s. The photography by Menuez is skillful and reminiscent of his other photo book covering roughly the same period in the tech industry, Fearless Genius. However, this is much more than a photo book. The writing has depth and really takes you on the journey of Newton from idea to launch. The authors balance covering marketing and engineering well. It’s a much better balance than most tech business books achieve, which usually are overly focused on marketing. There are also photos and vignettes that add a personal touch—really letting you step into the shoes of the team members. In particular you really get to know marketer Michael Tchao and engineer Steve Capps, who could arguably be called the book’s protagonists. Interestingly, both of them have enjoyed long-and-illustrious careers in the technology world after Newton.

Defying Gravity’s only fault is that it is perhaps too uncritical. It seems eternally optimistic about the technology, also a very ’90s trait. While this makes for refreshing reading in the age of big-tech pessimism, it also seems like the authors perhaps traded access for spin. All of the Newton team members at Apple are presented in a flattering light. Maybe this is accurate, but it doesn’t always feel genuine. John Sculley in particular, with a quarter-century of further hindsight, could perhaps be better viewed as using the Newton as a desperate grasp for his own legitimacy, than as being a “visionary.”

Defying Gravity also paints a picture of an out-of-control work culture that celebrated continuous 16-hour days. There is something heroic about giving your all to a cause that you really believe in. And that was clearly portrayed throughout the book. However, there is also something troubling about pushing people to work beyond their limits. And for one team member this seems to have led to tragic consequences. I think a book written today would have a more balanced view of the pros-and-cons of such an environment.

Defying Gravity provides a unique look at the high pressure development of an early 1990s computing platform at Apple. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in that era of technology, Apple history, or who enjoys business dramas. It’s unimaginable a writing team today would be provided such unprecedented access, which is unfortunate because the result is really quite enjoyable and insightful.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.