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An HiSToRY of NeXT
The NeXTcube was the best designed hardware with the most elegant operating system ever made. Unfortunately, it was also marketed by potato heads.
- J Meacham
Jobs & Sculley
NeXT Computer Inc was born in 1985 when Steve Jobs lost a power struggle with John Sculley. Jobs was convinced Sculley was turning out bad for the company. Jobs had gone into overdrive with the Macintosh project and regarded Sculley more and more as an outsider who didn't want to learn what computers are all about.
Jobs planned a coup against Sculley which involved luring him to China so Jobs could call a board meeting and have him ousted. But Sculley found out about the meeting, did not travel to China, had it out with Jobs, and won the vote of confidence of the board. And Jobs quit the same day.
The NeXT computer was envisioned as a 'supercomputer' for the desktop. Jobs did tell the board at Apple about his idea, and told them he wanted the project set up as a wholly independent subsidiary as well, but they didn't like the idea much. So when Jobs quit, he took the idea - and five top Apple engineers - with him anyway.
The new computer would be targeted towards academia, based on the Motorola processor, and based on the Unix operating system. Use of Unix was not only for its reputation, but also because academia had been using it for so long.
Jobs & Perot
Jobs needed funds to build his supercomputer, but the VCs gave him a lukewarm response. He used his own money to start the company, but in a year was running low. Through serendipity, Jobs met Ross Perot, who befriended him and agreed to invest $20 million in the company for a 16% interest.
With so much backing, Jobs went wild. He spent not only on R&D, but on tooling a manufacturing plant capable of outputting 150,000 units a year (NeXT would all told only build 50,000 units). The promise was for a product launch in 1987.
The NeXTcube finally made it out the door in August 1988, with the OS arriving in a complete version at the end of the following year.
With a 33MHz Motorola CPU, it was faster than any other computer on the market, and its appearance was stunning to say the least. And no traditional hard drives here - the NeXTcube used optical technology instead.
The NeXTcube inspired in other ways as well. Its software package included the complete works of Shakespeare, and its operating system NextStep was years ahead of anything ever seen.
But the price was high - $6000, later $9999 - or 2-3 times what other computers cost at the time, and the company had little support from the software community at large, so the product slumped in sales and garnered much too little third party support.
Jobs & Gates
Jobs had a chance to enlist buddy Bill Gates in the project, but played hard to get and ended up angering the Microsoft chairman. When later asked if he would develop software for NeXT, Gates replied: 'Develop for it? I'll piss on it!'
In the summer of 1990, NeXT came to the UK with a huge launch at the London Palladium. Jobs was on stage, dazzling the packed auditorium, but the viewers saw little of practical import, and so the market was cool.
Tim Berners-Lee chose a NeXTcube to develop the web because it had, as he put it, 'the first intuitive point-and-click and folders interface for personal computers'.
'The NeXT interface was beautiful, smooth and consistent,' Berners-Lee wrote in his book, Weaving the Web. 'It had great flexibility and other features that would not be seen on PCs till later, such as voice email and a built-in synthesiser.'
And Sybase, the database company, was to use NeXT computers to develop its client/server database.
So the NeXTcube was definitely not without its important fans and supporters.
But on the whole sales were slow, and NeXT would pull out of the hardware business altogether in 1993. Work continued however on the operating system, which was ported to the x86 architecture soon after.
Jobs & Apple
Finally in December 1996 then Apple CEO Gil Amelio bought the company outright for $429 million - on the condition Jobs came back to help the failing Apple.
Back in Cupertino things weren't good either. The massively hyped Copland project was in ruins, and Apple needed a new OS and fast. Discussions had been underway to purchase BeOS, but in the end it would be NeXT that would save the company.
For Jobs it was a complete vindication. He took the reins of Apple and turned finances around almost overnight, settling a deal with Microsoft, starting up web sales, introducing the iMac, then the iBook - and for over three years Apple rose in value and continued to be profitable. Finally NextStep was ready for the Mac, and introduced as OS X.
On 24 August 2002 (a date not to be regarded as accidental: the release in 1995 of Windows 95) Apple officially released Jaguar, its version 10.2 of the OS X operating system, to more praise and acclaim than even earlier. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and almost all major media companies hailed OS X as finally coming of age.
NeXT Computer and the NextStep operating system are an extraordinary episode in the history of computing - a demonstration of a new and higher standard that cannot even be matched to this day. As Jobs put it back in 1989, when he was badgered over delays to the launch of NeXT: 'Late? This computer is five years ahead of its time.'