What is it with Steve Jobs and cubes? This year, the Apple chief executive unveiled the Power Mac G4 Cube, and it turned a few heads, to say the least. The G4 Cube is a 'supercomputer' - Jobs's term - packed into a 7.7in by 7.7in space, encased in see-through plastic.
While hardly a 'supercomputer' by today's standards, the Cube is visually stunning. It's quite a feat of engineering to compress the processing power of a 500Mhz G4, along with a DVD player, into such a small, fan-less space.
Yet there is perhaps more theatre than practicality in the Cube. Apart from the basic electronics, everything else, such as monitor, keyboard, speakers and even the amplifier and power supply, have to sit outside the box.
Steve Jobs has been here before. His last cube was hailed as a supercomputer in a small package and was a feat of engineering. It was stylish enough to turn heads, but in the end definitely turned out to be more style than substance.
When the NeXT Computer was launched in 1988 Jobs believed it would change the world of computing. In the end, the story of the NeXT cube became a study in failure. NeXT was a high-profile disaster, a computer system that the world admired but wouldn't buy.
But despite its record of consistent failure, NeXT would find a saviour in Apple Computer, and Jobs would find redemption and vindication in another product launch this year. Not in the debut of the G4 Cube, which carries the baggage of the failed NeXT system, but in the launch of OS/X, the operating system that could guarantee Apple's future and - if Jobs is to be believed - owes so much more to NeXT.
Jobs takes his ball home
NeXT Computer Inc was born in 1985 when Jobs and Apple were headed for divorce. A year-and-a-half after the triumphant launch of the Mac, Jobs had, by all accounts, managed to get up the nose of every senior manager at Apple. As a result, Apple chief executive John Sculley sidelined Jobs into the chairman's role, and Jobs was bored.
Then he had the idea for a new piece of hardware that would be a sophisticated yet inexpensive supercomputer to help scientists and academics deal with real problems. It would be more sophisticated than a Mac, but easier to use than the time-sharing systems that academics then were using.
Jobs told the Apple board he was going to set up another company and that he was taking five Apple senior managers with him. The board went ballistic, so Jobs resigned in high dudgeon, taking the managers with him anyway.
Lawsuits broke out on both sides and thus was NeXT Inc (the 'Computer' would be added later) formed. As with its birth, NeXT's life would be no walk in the park.
A supercomputer for us all
Jobs's idea was to build a powerful system aimed squarely at the academic market. It would be based on Motorola processors - better and faster than Intel's at that time - and would use Unix as a base operating system because the OS was the staple of the academic market. The real innovation would be to package this with an easy-to-use front end that would make the system accessible for all.
This was Jobs getting back to what he knew best. Just as the Mac's target constituency included the educational market, so the NeXT would be aimed at the high end of education - a supercomputer for the rest of us.
The idea was mapped out and touted around the venture capitalists, who all turned it down, perhaps with good reason. At that time, Microsoft and Apple produced the two de facto standards for personal computer operating systems. Who needed a third?
In particular, who would write software for it? Most application vendors were already busy writing for two operating systems, so why would they want to write yet another version?
An angel from Texas
Jobs had used his own money to set up NeXT, but by the end of 1986 he badly needed some more. He had agreed to take part in a documentary that focused on young entrepreneurs. One person who watched the documentary was Texan H. Ross Perot, multi-millionaire founder of EDS and future US presidential candidate. Perot liked what he saw in NeXT, called Jobs and told him that if he ever needed money he should call him. So Jobs offered Perot a 16 per cent stake in the company for $20m. Over a handshake, Perot agreed.
This was an amazing stroke of luck for NeXT, but a financial gaffe of gargantuan proportions for Perot. His money dwarfed the money Jobs had put in ($7m) and valued the company at a bloated $126m. The effect on NeXT was like pouring gasoline on a fire, as they say in Texas.
"One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was to give those young people all that money," Perot would later say. But he also regretted his failure to buy Microsoft in 1979, when he had the opportunity. That failure would partly explain his leap of faith in NeXT.
Jobs now believed that the company couldn't fail. He set about authorising massive expenditure, not just on research and development but on a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility capable of producing 150,000 computers a year. Over its entire lifetime it would end up building just 50,000.
Bill's other famous quote
Jobs promised the system would be launched in spring 1987, but it would be autumn of 1988 before it actually shipped, and near the end of 1989 before its operating system would be out in a finished version.
When it came, of course, it was stunning. The black cube of the NeXT system box looked stylish and smart. With a 33Mhz Motorola 68030 processor it was more powerful than any Mac or Intel PC, and its use of optical technology instead of conventional hard disks - not to mention the inclusion of a package of software that included the complete works of Shakespeare - made it stand out from the herd. Anyone who knew anything about computers wanted a "black box".
But there were two problems. One was the price - $6000, or twice the price of a good Mac or PC at the time. The other was the almost complete absence of any software that could be truly useful.
There was no problem with the software that came with the system. The operating system and the development environment were second to none. Jobs' team had used nascent object technology to build an environment that allowed users to create their own simple applications in the point-and-click fashion that we are used to today.
The real problem was behind the scenes, where NeXT had limited support from the wider professional development community. This was partly Jobs's fault.
The author Randall Stross describes the day that Bill Gates came to visit NeXT to get a look at what his pal Steve Jobs had created. "Jobs let him sit in the lobby for a half hour while Jobs moved conspicuously about the building letting his visitor stew ... which was a way of NeXT telling Microsoft that it did not really need the software company's help."
Jobs wanted to play hard-to-get, but this strategy backfired badly. Later, when asked if Microsoft would develop software for the NeXT system, Gates replied: "Develop for it? I'll piss on it." Which he duly did - metaphorically.
While the absence of competing Microsoft applications encouraged some other software companies to develop for NeXT, the overall effect of the lack of support from the industry leader was to lessen confidence in both the computer and the company.
Yet nothing would dampen Jobs' confidence. The company continued to eat up cash while selling very few systems. In the summer of 1990, NeXT came to the UK with a huge launch at the London Palladium. The auditorium was packed as Jobs put in a virtuoso performance, demonstrating how easy it was to create and use applications on a NeXT system.
NeXT's potential and problems were shown in equal parts in this display: the operating system was revealed as a cut above anything else then available, but there was little in the demonstration of any practical value; no substance behind the gloss.
NeXT's greatest achievement?
It was about this time that Tim Berners-Lee was working on a new idea for linking academics across the internet using hypertext. He decided to use a NeXT system for development, because it had "the first intuitive point-and-click and folders interface for personal computers". So the web was born on the NeXT computer.
"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."
As he continued the development process, Berners-Lee would consider switching development from the NeXT to the PC, but decided "that would be like switching from your favourite sports car to a truck".
Inventing the web aside, NeXT was scoring some other wins - such as Sybase, a company that used the system in developing its client/server database. But overall, sales were slow and the company was in trouble - by 1993 it would pull out of the hardware business all together.
Life after death
The end of the NeXT computer did not mean the end of NeXT the company, which continued in the software business. By the early 1990s, the Object Management Group was doing effective work and NeXT had a ready-made Unix-based object development system to exploit the technology's new-found popularity. The company also made NeXTStep available for PCs. The easy-to-use environment was popular in some areas, but NeXT was really a company staggering around while refusing to fall down.
Salvation came just before Christmas 1996, when the good fairy, in the form of Apple chief executive Gil Amelio, dropped in to buy NeXT for $400m. This seemed a crazy amount for a half-dead company, but more surprising still was that Amelio wanted Jobs as well.
Apple, of course, was desperate. In 1996, its own operating system strategy was in chaos after the failure of Copland. Apple needed a true multi-tasking, multi-threaded OS to replace MacOS. The company couldn't reach an agreement with Be Inc over its BeOS system, so bought NeXT instead.
Four years after that decision, NeXTStep lies at the heart of OS/X - a powerful multi-tasking system with a state-of-the-art user interface. As Steve Jobs put it to Fortune earlier this year: "Once this plays out, I think we'll all feel vindicated. Those of us from NeXT and everybody at Apple too."
Was it worth it? Author Owen Linzmayer knows Apple well and followed NeXT. He has no doubts. "Apple's purchase of NeXT was a great deal, if for no other reason than it brought Steve Jobs back," he writes. "He saved Apple when it looked hopeless. If they never use one line of code from NeXT, it'll still be a bargain."
Jobs may have saved Apple, although recent signs of financial slippage are ominous, but Linzmayer does not see it changing much in the computer industry at large. "The market has already spoken and Windows won, which only goes to show that the market doesn't care if you have a clearly superior product."
If nothing else, the way the NeXT story ended was vindication for Jobs. "He earned redemption in the eyes of the public and the industry," says Linzmayer.
The story of NeXT stands out as an extraordinary episode in the history of computing. This was one man's attempt to advance the industry on to a new and higher standard of personal computing just when the pace of innovation was slowing after the heady 1980s. The fact is that in 1990, the NeXT Computer was already offering much of what we take for granted on computers today.
Perhaps Steve Jobs was right in 1989, when he was badgered over delays to the launch of NeXT: "Late? This computer is five years ahead of its time." Never knowingly underconfident, our Steve.
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