Steve Jobs and NeXT: Genesis of the new Apple

The old cliche applies to Steve Jobs and NeXT Computer. Out of failure comes success.

Some of the most revealing video of Steve Jobs can be seen when he was pitching NeXT Computer--a cutting-edge workstation that flopped but contained the seeds for successful Mac designs to come.

I was formally introduced to NeXT when Jobs visited the offices of InfoWorld in San Mateo, Calif.--where I worked as a reporter in the early 1990s. Surprisingly, not many people attended his session. (Or maybe it's not that surprising since Jobs and NeXT were perceived at that time to be on the skids.)

The NeXT Computer circa 1990.  A brochure that I've held on to all of these years.  The computer's aesthetics presaged the minimalist, eye-catching Macs to come.  It had novelties like a Canon 256MB magneto-optical (MO) drive and a Motorola digital signal processor for handling audio processing.
The NeXT Computer circa 1990. A brochure that I've held on to all of these years. The computer's aesthetics presaged the eye-catching Macs to come. It had novelties like a Canon 256MB magneto-optical (MO) drive and a Motorola digital signal processor for handling audio processing. Brooke Crothers

The small audience (and it was a relatively small conference room, to boot) didn't seem to faze Jobs, though. He screamed for 30 minutes or so--that's how I remember it--about how great the NeXTSTEP operating system was, implying that only idiots wouldn't be able to see this.

The pricey NeXT computer--which had debuted at more than $6,000--had fallen on hard times by then. And the cutting-edge factory in Fremont, Calif.--a reflection of the machine it was making--was on its last legs.

Big players like IBM and Sun Microsystems had initially bought into the software but the hardware was eschewed (or ignored) largely by the public. Microsoft's CEO Bill Gates didn't help matters when he said the computer was "crap," according to Walter Isaacson's biography "Steve Jobs." And when asked by Jobs to write software for it, Gates said, "Develop for it? I'll piss on it," according to InfoWorld, which Isaacson quotes in his book.

I remember first seeing NeXT Computers in Tokyo (Nishi-Shinjuku). They were sold in Canon stores right next to Macs and Canon printers. I thoroughly disagree with Gates' assessment. To me, the NeXT computer was not only a fresh take on the workstation but the desktop computer--albeit very high end.

Needless to say, Jobs explains this better than anyone. Listen to Jobs proselytize NeXT in a video beginning at the 3:50 minute mark. He prefaces these comments by aptly describing workstations from companies like Sun and IBM as being "not for mere mortals."

In short, he wanted to do for workstations what he did for Macs: make computers--in this case very powerful ones--more palatable/accessible to users and thereby create a new market. He called it the "professional" workstation market.

But back to my original point. The NeXT computer design was the precursor to today's Macs. A clean, well-honed industrial design that is immediately recognizable as being different. And, lest we forget, Mac OS X is built on NeXT's OpenStep.

Apple purchased NeXT in 1996 for $429 million and Jobs went back to Apple. The rest is history.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

ARTICLE DISCUSSION

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

Hot on CNET

CNET's giving away a 3D printer

Enter for a chance to win* the MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer and all the supplies you need to get started.