Having left Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs founded another computer company named NeXT Inc. along with five other employees who were part of the Macintosh and Lisa teams.
As the story goes, Steve Jobs was still looking for new directions in life when he met with a friend of his, Nobel Prize Paul Berg, from Stanford University. Berg told him of his work on DNA, and asked him whether the molecules could be simulated on computers. The answer was no, not yet anyway… this gave Steve the idea of starting a new company. He would build a high-end computer aimed solely at the higher education and research markets. He asked around and found out the general consensus was a need for a so-called 3M machine — a computer that could hold one megabyte of memory, perform one million instructions per second, and display one million pixels on a screen. More about the events that led to NeXT’s creation here.
The NeXT team included Bud Tribble, the first Mac programmer; George Crow, a key Mac hardware engineer; Rich Page, who had supervised almost all of Lisa’s development; Dan’l Lewin, who had made the Apple University Consortium possible; and Susan Barnes, a Wharton alumnus with a MBA in finance.
Steve started by doing one of the things he was best at doing: recruiting. He hired only extremely bright and competent people. At one point Next bragged that even their receptionist was a Ph.D.! There was incredible hype around Steve’s new venture.
Next treated its employees in a pretty unique fashion in Silicon Valley. First, there were only two levels in salary for a long time: senior staff earned $75,000 a year, and the rest earned $50,000. It gave the place sort of a communal feel, a community of super-bright people, not a tech start-up driven by greed. Other perks included health club memberships, counseling services, emergency loans, and free fresh juice. Keep in mind the company still had no revenues to speak of during those early years — it was still operating with Steve’s pocket money.
Steve also went and looked for a logo and a corporate identity for his new venture. He found both after he asked who was the best logo designer on the planet, and was introduced to Yale art professor Paul Rand. Rand came up with the name NeXT, with a conspicuous lowercase “e”, that was supposed to stand for: “education, excellence, expertise, exceptional, excitement, e=mc2…”
Perfectionist in every detail
No detail seemed too trivial to be overlooked; everything NeXT did had to be perfect.
First with software. When Steve started asking around to know what was the state of the art in computer operating system, he was told the most stable, modern software was called UNIX. It was a very complex but very powerful OS used in universities and by large companies in their mainframes. The most advanced UNIX technology was being developed at Carnegie-Mellon, where Steve hired some of his best programmers, such as Avie Tevanian. He was also told about object-oriented programming, a
breakthrough from Xerox PARC which made software development very fast and efficient. This was the easiest and most efficient way to build software, another breakthrough invented at Xerox PARC. So Steve knew his priorities for the NeXT operating system: it would be a UNIX object-oriented system — on top of which would be added a graphical user interface, to make it user-friendly. These were the very ambitious foundations of NeXTSTEP, so ambitious that it would take several years before they would give birth to a stable operating system.
Second, of course, was hardware. Steve had been thrilled by the factory that was used to produce Macintosh — he wanted to do even better this time with NeXT. He set up to build the most advanced automated factory in the world, in Fremont, not too far from the Mac factory itself. The NeXT computers would be built untouched by human hands, using robots operated by other NeXT computers. The factory was designed to mass produce NeXT Cubes and bring the costs down with volume… a disastrous choice for the future.
And finally, the design of the machine, of course, had to be a stunner as well. Steve hired frogdesign again, the same firm that had designed Macintosh, and they came up with a perfect black cube built out of magnesium. Although the Cube clearly deserved its place at the SF MOMA, many of its features made it a pain to build: from the perfect right angles to its materials to its color, it was extremely complicated — and expensive — to put together. In addition, Steve had made a point on also designing a “beautiful” board for the Cube. All the electronic components, which are usually on several different pieces of plastic, were melded on a single square board that the chairman considered as beautiful as the case itself. However it was a strenuous problem for engineers to solve.
There was also the problem of the computer storage system: Steve hated floppy disks, so when he learned about a new technology developed by Canon called magneto-optical drives, he jumped on the occasion. This was a brand new way to store data, but it had not been brought to market yet and its price was still astronomical. Steve bet on it and made it standard on the NeXT computer.
Watch and get a feel of what was it meant to build and breath life into the NeXT computer.
The NeXT Cube Unveiling
Because of all its breakthroughs, in both hardware and software, the date of the NeXT computer’s introduction was constantly being put off. Originally, it was supposed to be out in spring 1987, since most universities shop for the next academic year during springtime. But the computer was nowhere near ready at that time! It was rescheduled for fall 1987, then spring 1988, and finally to fall 1988 — on October 12 to be precise.
The NeXT Introduction sub-titled “the Introduction to the NeXT Generation of Computers for Education” was a lavish (invitation only) gala launch event for The NeXT Computer was described as a multimedia extravaganza. It was held at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California on Wednesday October 12, 1988. The event ran from 9:30am till 12 noon. Attendees were all given a unique launch event poster.
At the time, it was considered that this event was the launch of not just a new computer but also a new Steve Jobs. With Jobs himself telling his audience “It’s great to be back.”
The hype was of tremendous proportions. Steve stayed on the stage of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall for three hours, ending his presentation with a duet between a violinist and the NeXT Cube to demonstrate the computer’s breakthrough sound abilities.
The NeXT Computer Evolution
NeXT’s first workstation was officially named the NeXT Computer, although it was widely referred to as “the cube“ because of its distinctive case, a 1 ft magnesium cube. A team led by Avie Tevanian, who had joined the company after working as one of the Mach kernel engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, was to develop the NeXTSTEP operating system. Rich Page designed and developed the hardware. The NeXT Computer was based on the new 25 MHz Motorola 68030 CPU. It included between 8 and 64 MB of RAM, a 256 MB magneto-optical (MO) drive, a 40 MB , 330 MB, or 660 MB hard drive, 10BASE2 Ethernet, and a 17-inch MegaPixel grayscale display measuring 1120 by 832 pixels. The first NeXT computers were released on the retail market in 1990, for $9,999.
Despite those signs of optimism, the NeXT Cube was a blatant failure on the marketplace. It simply did not sell: universities and students found it way too expensive.
Steve Jobs tried to adjust by substantially changing NeXT’s strategy. The company stopped selling exclusively to the education market, and tried to make its way into corporate America. NeXTSTEP’s object-oriented development environment was a key advantage in that market: it would allow for companies to write custom software in record time.
NeXT released a second generation of workstations in 1990. The new range included a revised NeXT Computer, renamed the NeXTcube, and the NeXTstation, nicknamed “the slab,” which used a “pizza box” case form-factor. The magneto-optical drive was replaced with a 2.88 MB floppy drive to offer users a way to use their floppy disks. NeXT utilized the CD-ROM drive, which eventually became an industry standard for storage. Color graphics were available on the NeXTstation Color and the NeXTdimension graphics processor hardware for the NeXTcube. The new computers were cheaper and faster than their predecessors, with the new Motorola 68040 processor. Here’s the launch video of NeXTstation.
NeXT started porting the NeXTSTEP operating system to PC compatible computers using the Intel 486 processor in late 1991. The operating system was ported to Intel’s architecture because of a change in NeXT’s business strategy (which was then to remove themselves from the hardware business entirely).
Apple Computer announced an intention to acquire NeXT on December 20, 1996. Apple paid $429 million in cash which went to the initial investors and 1.5 million Apple shares which went to Steve Jobs. The main purpose of the acquisition was to use NeXTSTEP as a foundation to replace the dated Mac OS. The deal was finalized on February 7, 1997, bringing Jobs back to Apple as a consultant, who was later appointed as interim CEO. In 2000 Jobs took the CEO position as a permanent assignment.
Several NeXT executives replaced their Apple counterparts when Steve Jobs restructured the company’s board of directors. Over the next five years the NeXTSTEP operating system was ported to the PowerPC architecture. At the same time, an Intel port and OpenStep Enterprise toolkit for Windows were both produced. The operating system was code named Rhapsody, while the toolkit for development on all platforms was called “Yellow Box”. For backwards compatibility Apple added the “Blue Box” to Rhapsody, allowing existing Mac applications to be run in a self-contained cooperative multitasking environment.
A server version of the new operating system was released as Mac OS X Server 1.0 in 1999, and the first consumer version, Mac OS X 10.0, in 2001. The OpenStep developer toolkit was renamed Cocoa. Some of NeXTSTEP’s interface features were used in Mac OS X, including the Dock, the Services menu, the Finder‘s ‘browser‘ view, and the Cocoa text system.
Despite NeXT’s limited commercial success, the company had a wide-ranging impact on the computer industry. Object-oriented programming and graphical user interfaces became more common after the 1988 release of the NeXTcube and NeXTSTEP, when other companies started to emulate NeXT’s object-oriented system.
Several developers used the NeXT platform to write pioneering programs. Tim Berners-Lee used a NeXT Computer in 1990 to create the first web browser and web server; accordingly, NeXT was instrumental in the development of the World Wide Web.