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NeXT

NeXT was a computer company, known to the public for their series of futuristic computers, and to the programming world for their development platforms. They were bought in a takeover by Apple Computer and are no longer in business.

Table of contents
1 Miscellaneous

Prehistory

In 1985 Steve Jobs began to regret hiring John Sculley as the new CEO of Apple, and started a brief power struggle to regain control of the company. The board stood behind Sculley, and in the aftermath Jobs was stripped of most of his duties, and banished to an office at the back of a distant building on the Apple campus. After a few months of being ignored, he left.

After "bumming around" for a while he decided that computers really were his strong suit, and started visiting various universities to look at where the industry was going. He concluded several technologies were going to be the next source of change:

  • PostScript, which appeared to be on its way to becoming the standard graphics language
  • Mach, which seemed to be re-writing the whole idea of the operating system
  • object oriented programming, a hot topic in the research world

Later that year he collected these ideas into a product concept that he thought would be the next big thing: an object oriented toolkit, aimed primarily at the academic market, using PostScript as the display technology.

Starting NeXT Inc. with an out-of-pocket investment of $7 million, he hired seven employees (mostly ex-Apple folk from the Apple Macintosh project) and started work with Adobe on on what would eventually become Display PostScript.

NeXT Computer

By the middle of 1986 it was clear that no existing operating system (OS) was capable of hosting the toolkit, at least not on a personal computer level. Instead of making and selling a toolkit, the business plan changed to making and selling complete machines running it on top of a Unix-like Mach-based OS. The latter would be created by a team led by Avie Tevanian, one of the Mach engineers at Carnegie-Mellon University who had since joined the company. The name of the company was changed to NeXT Computer Inc..

By 1987 NeXT finished construction of a completely automated factory for their first product, the NeXTcube. Stories about Jobs' demands for the factory and the cube are now legend, including the re-painting of the factory several times in order to get just the right shade of grey, and the institution of a series of time consuming changes to the production line so that the cube's expensive magnesium case would have perfect right-angle edges.

Another example of what appears to be hubris can be seen in the selection of a drive mechanism. At the time most machines shipped with hard drives of 20 or 40MB, onto which software (including the OS) was loaded using floppy disks. Even in the late 1980s this was starting to be a real problem, as the user needed to swap huge stacks of floppies to load the ever-growing applications.

This was even more of a problem for NeXT. Even the hard drive didn't solve their problem because the OS was several tens of MB, and the stack of floppies needed to load it would be bigger than the machine. Larger hard drives were available but they were terribly expensive. At the time a usably-large 640MB drive cost $4995 list.

So instead NeXT would try to do one better, replacing both the hard drive and floppy with a single removable medium. This was in the form of a 256MB Magneto-optical[?] device, which was just coming onto the market. This was a very risky move considering the equipment didn't even exist during the design stages, and many have claimed it was used primarily due to Jobs' disdain for the floppy.

The Cube was based on a 25MHz Motorola 68030 CPU which had recently come to market, making it competitive with the workstation vendors like Sun Microsystems in terms of performance. There had been some discussion of using the Motorola 88000 RISC chip, but it was considered too risky as they weren't available in quantity at the time. This makes the magneto-optical drive decision all the more baffling.

The 68030 was supported by the 68882 FPU for faster math, the 56661 DSP for multi-media work, and two custom-designed 6-channel DMA channel controllers which allowed much of the I/O to be offloaded from the main processor to boost the speed of common tasks.

The Cube fitted into an odd spot in the computer market. It wasn't as fast as the latest generation of Unix workstations[?] becoming available at that time, but cost about half as much. Comparing the Cube with more common Intel based machines was more difficult. The machine shipped with a huge 8MB of RAM (at a time when 4MB cost $1495), the 256MB MO drive, Ethernet, and a large "megapixel" (1120 x 832 pixel) grescale display. Meanwhile the typical PC still used the 8088, the 8086 or 286 CPU, had either a 320x240 4-color or 640x480 black and white display, typically had no networking, and may or may not have a hard drive. Did the NeXT machine even compare at all?

Prototype Cubes were shown to standing ovations in October 1988, and a slew of magazines reviewed the system - all concentrating on the hardware. By 1989 the machines were in beta form, and they started selling limited numbers to universities with a 0.9 version of the OS installed.

The machines weren't ready for "real" sales until 1990, when they went on the market for $9999. At the time Jobs was concerned that the market was quickly stratifying and the window of opportunity to introduce any new platform was rapidly closing. Just after their release he noted that "this will either be the last machine to make it, or the first to fail".

When it was discovered that the MO drive led to very serious performance problems in real-world use (as well as costing about $100 per disk), NeXT as a whole gained a reputation for failure that would never rub off. Basically the drive itself, while faster than a floppy, was simply not fast enough to run a Unix based OS as its primary medium. But more annoyingly, with the OS loaded onto the disk, simply copying a file from one disk to another was almost impossible, as removing the disk removed the OS along with it. And since most other machines didn't have networking, and instead used floppies for moving data files around (the so-called sneakernet) it was equally difficult to move files to and from the machine.

This problem was rectified by 1991, when a new series of machines with floppy disks and hard drives shipped. A new line then introduced the newer and much faster 68040. The same parts were later put in a new "pizza box" case, creating the NeXTstation, which sold at a lower price point and became fairly popular.

With all of the attention focused on the hardware, the true gem of the system, NeXTSTEP, was lost in the hype. Nevertheless, NeXT staff frequently wrote articles in major programming magazines like Dr. Dobbs[?], showing how some recent article's 3+ pages of code was implemented under NeXTSTEP in perhaps 10 lines.

A number of programs started shipping for the system, including the amazing Lotus Improv spreadsheet, and the first web browser. The system also shipped with a number of "smaller" applications built in that would actually improve the environment considerably without being obvious, things like the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary[?], Oxford Quotations[?], the complete works of William Shakespeare, and the Digital Librarian search engine to access them all.

In all, some 50,000 NeXT machines were sold. This was a tiny segment of the market, and proved Steve's own words prophetic. Although the lack of success by other new desktop platforms (such as the BeBox) suggests that the age of unique hardware designs was past, it is an open question as to whether the systems would have been more successful had they avoided the performance and price problems by including a hard drive in the first machines, and had found a more cost-effective RAM setup.

NeXT Software

By 1992 work had already started on a port of the NeXTSTEP operating system to the Intel platform. At the same time work began on replacing the 68000 series CPU's with the new PowerPC, which was starting up as a joint program between Apple, IBM and Motorola.

By late 1993 the Intel port was complete, and was released in the form of NeXTSTEP 3.1 (also referred to as NEXTSTEP 486). Work on the PowerPC machines was stopped along with all hardware production. The company renamed once again, this time to NeXT Software Inc.

NeXTSTEP 3.x was later ported to PA-RISC and SPARC based platforms, for a total of four versions:

  • NeXTSTEP/NeXT (for NeXT's 68k "black boxes")
  • NeXTSTEP/Intel
  • NeXTSTEP/PA-RISC
  • NeXTSTEP/SPARC

None of the non-NeXT versions appear to have seen much use. At the time, the performance of the Intel platforms was quite limited (although not for long), and running it on the other two systems meant replacing their "native" OSes outright. One of the primary reasons for buying one of these platforms was to use specialized software that ran only on the their operating system/cpu combination (as opposed to today, where the most common use is as a server), and running NeXTSTEP meant giving that up.

At this point NeXT's attention turned away from supplying a complete OS, and along with Sun they started an effort that would lead to OpenStep. This was basically NeXTSTEP without the Mach-based Unix underneath it, using some other OS instead.

The company had now come full circle. Originally intending to sell a toolkit running on top of other OSes, they had ventured into hardware, failed, and returned to selling a toolkit running on top of other OSes. Although OpenStep had an enthusiastic audience of developers using it for enterprise software[?] and the like, it never attracted really large numbers of paying customers, and lack of revenue growth was a perennial problem.

New products continued to ship on the platform, including a version for Windows NT, but Steve had clearly lost interest and was spending all of his time at Pixar.

End of NeXT

In 1996 Apple Computer purchased the assets of NeXT Software in order to use NeXTSTEP to replace the now outdated Mac OS, but it would be a long four years before it would be released as Mac OS X (with OpenStep re-appearing as Cocoa). Steve Jobs returned to Apple as a consultant, then as interim CEO (or "iCEO", echoing the name of Apple's new ironically floppy-drive-less iMac consumer hardware), and finally as CEO. (Wags summarized this by referring to the acquisition as "NeXT buying Apple".)

Miscellaneous The NeXT logo was designed by Paul Rand



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