Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

Summary: Today's Apple and Mac OS X were formed by Jobs' years at NeXT.


As an East-coast based technologist I barely knew the Steve Jobs of Apple's early years. As a journalist covering Unix though I did get to know Steve Jobs when he founded NeXT and directed the creation of NeXTStep, the first Unix desktop meant for a mass market. Today, you know its direct descendant as Mac OS X.

For the last decade, you've known Steve Jobs as the wizard-king of Apple. From his throne room at Macworld or Apple's developers conference, he would strive forth in his robes of office--a black turtleneck and jeans-announce "One more thing" and determine the shape of computing for the next year. Hate him or love him, he was the trend-setter not just for Apple, but for all computing. And, just like the Wizard of Oz, outside his throne room, he would have nothing to do with you. That wasn't the Jobs I met in 1989.

The Jobs I knew, still chastened by his forced departure from Apple in 1985, was happy to talk to the press. I think he rather liked me since I was one of the few people who took his new company, NeXT; his new PCs, the NeXT Cube and the NeXTStation, and his new operating system, NeXTStep seriously.

You see, this wasn't the jobs whose merest glance was analyzed by bloggers around the world for a hint of what Apple might do next. No, this was the Jobs pushing a BSD Unix-based operating system and incredibly expensive computers to a world that thought the only realistic alternative to Windows might conceivably be OS/2. Steve Jobs? He was the crank who made great stuff that was far too expensive for most users.

They were wrong of course. What Jobs was doing in the late 80s and early 90s, freed of the restraints of Apple's then CEO John Scully, was creating the foundation of not just Mac OS X, but what would prove to be model for today's Apple.

The NeXT Computer, and its follow-up, the NeXT Cube looking nothing like any other computer of their day. Unlike Apple's rather silly battles today to claim that Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1's design violates the look of Apple's iPad, the NeXT hardware really did look like nothing else on the marketplace.

And, like today's Apple computers, phones and tablets, NeXT hardware came at a premium price: The very first NeXT computers, which were only available to educational institutions, cost $6,500. They looked great, had features, like a mageto-optical disc for storage, that no one else had, and they cost a fortune. Hmmm... where have I heard of hardware like that recently? Could it be Apple? Why, yes, yes it is.

The second generation would cost even more. Few of them were sold, but, then as now, cutting edge technology people lusted for them the way an Apple fanboy lists for an iPhone 5 today. Mea culpa, one of my proudest possessions in those days was my NeXTStation Color. It cost me five grand back in 1993. Everyone, but everyone, said how great the NeXT hardware while at the same time saying it was far too expensive to ever really become a success.

At the same time though, if you doing really cutting edge work, you wanted a NeXT. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, for example, created the first Web server and browser on NeXT computers.

These machines all ran NeXTStep. NeXTStep ran on top of a multi-threaded, multi-processing microkernel operating system: Mach. On top of this micro-kernel, NeXTStep used BSD Unix. What most users saw was the Workspace Manager. This was an object-oriented GUI. You could take its individual elements, icons, menus and windows, apart and sew them back together to form an interface's that's custom tailored for the way you work.

NeXTStep's Workspace Manager included "shelf" for files and an "application dock" for programs. On NeXTStep's shelves you could place any frequently accessed programs, directories, or files. Launching programs and working with files is all accomplished by click, drag and drop.

Does this sound familiar? It should. NeXTStep, and its components, are the direct ancestors of today's Mac OS X. Without NeXTStep, and its Unix foundation, there would be no Mac OS X. A NeXTStep user from 1993 would have little trouble using 2011's Mac OS X Lion.

While NeXT computers and NeXTStep were gaining fans but little market share, Apple was having serious trouble. Under Scully and then Michael Spindler, the company continued to flounder. When Gil Amelio took Apple over in 1996, he appointed Ellen Hancock to determine Apple's operating system future.

Hancock quickly decided that the existing plans to upgrade the Mac's operating system to Copland were a complete mess. She recommended that Apple should look outside its corporate walls to find its new operating system. The company did and by 1996 NeXTStep was selected to become Apple's future operating system, Mac OS X. Apple bought NeXT and Jobs, in 1997, returned to Apple as a "consultant." By September 1997, Jobs was back in the saddle as CEO.

The Jobs who returned to Apple wasn't the same man who'd left. He was even more determined that Apple would be run his way and no other way. He'd like being in charge at NeXT and he wasn't going to re-invent an Apple "beset by financial losses, disappointing sales and eroding market share," to anyone else's vision save his own.

That meant building unique new hardware. At NeXT, he had done that with the NeXT Cube. In more recent years he's done this with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. In addition, just as with NeXT hardware, Apple would charge a premium price for its innovative designs and quality workmanship. It means, while barely acknowledging it in recent years, that Mac OS X is built on an open-source Unix foundation.

NeXT turned out to be Jobs' blueprint for today's Apple. I don't know what will happen to Apple tomorrow. It worries me that, instead of relying on superior design and production values, Apple has recently turned to intellectual property lawsuits to maintain its market momentum. Maybe it's just a sign of the times, as one software company after another exploits the broken patent system to try to stifle competition, but I fear it's more a sign that Jobs' failing health had left him unable to follow his original, NeXT-based technology vision.

Related Stories:

Steve Jobs: Thinking through his CEO legacy

Steve Jobs retrospective (Video)

Steve Jobs: Apple's greatest legacy or its biggest obstacle?

Steve Jobs resigns: Now Apple's succession plan to be put to test

Topics: Operating Systems, Apple, CXO, Open Source, Software

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  • Not 'instead' of relying on superior design, but in addition to

    Nothing gives Google, Samsung, HTC and the likes right to use patented IP for free.<br><br>Before Apple, no one patented all-flat surfaced tablet device. Earlier devices -- from existing like Sony's photo frame to imagined like tablet-TV -- are not prior art since these were not tablet computers; different type of devices and functionality. And all prior tablets had shaped (plastic) borders/bezels, not all-flat surface design.<br><br>No one before Apple also patented (or even demonstrated) multi-touch gesture based UI for capacitive touch mobile screens (nothing to do with Microsofts camera-based tables).<br><br>So, of course, Apple would sue these who try to use these patents without licensing. Google is welcome to return Android to its <a href="">actual UI</a>, and Samsung and HTC are welcome to return with their shaped plastic bezels/borders tablets.

    Apple's legal activity has nothing to do with superior designs; Jobs warned copycats back in January of 2007 that courts will wait them.
    • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years


      How'd that work out in Holland?
    • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

      @DeRSSS : my god, you've got it bad. I wonder why Ford doesn't sue all other motor manufacturers for creating vehicles with 4 round wheels etc etc
  • Tim Cook needs to drop all android lawsuits

    in order to save Apple from becoming the next SCO and certain bankruptcy.
    The Linux Geek
    • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

      @The Linux Geek
      76,000,000,000 is how much $ Apple has... they can spend millons fighting lawsuits and it won't matter... in fact I'm sending them an extra 1,300 when I get my MacBook Air...
      • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

        your wasted $$$ will only prolong the inevitable: FOSS will win.
        The Linux Geek
    • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

      @The Linux Geek...Maybe you should apply for hi job...
  • Open source

    Seems that most DroidBoys are sooooo in love with FOSS, then why not also use it on your desktops (Ubuntu, Fedora anyone?). No, they'd rather be slaves to Windows on the desktop. FOSS is a mess, you'll see things clearer as you grow up.
    • FOSS means freedom

      and we must protect it against the axis of evil software:
      The Linux Geek
      • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

        @The Linux Geek For most people FOSS means the freedom to download mediocre copycat software.
  • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

    Does anyone proof read these blogs? There are so many grammatical errors I had to stop reading. It was probably typed on an iPad. Geez, the state of "journalism" these days...
    • Standard Steven -

      I'm sure Steve uses Open Office or whatever that other branch of word processor is. You know, the suites that still don't have Grammar Checkers? You know, the fundemental tool available in MS Office for over 10 years!

      Gotta use the second rate tools 'cause they are open source.
      • If your tools are so awesome, why can't you spell &quot;fundamental&quot;? [nt]

      • Speaking of the iPad and MS Office

        I wonder when Microsoft will port their MS Office ecosystem to the iPad, the world's top-selling tablet. At a minimum, one would think that this would provide a good training exercise for Microsoft's programmers getting ready for Windows 8-based tablets.

        @lippidp @Cynical99 Steven probably does his 'writing' using one of the gazillion open-source text editors. I will, however, give the open-source community kudos for surpassing MS Notepad in features such as tabs, highlighting, etc.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
      • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

        @Cynical99 Here:
        or here:
        Not everyone wants grammar checkers, and not everyone speaks English.
      • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

        Nice try, the first one is still BETA. Typical, pitching a vastly inferior product against the standard.
        Second one I've tried. Ever done the setup on these monstrosities? Simplicity works, and by the way, MS Works works in multiple languages, and has for many years.

        Open Source loses again.
      • Message has been deleted.

      • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

        Well, I was going to answer until I saw your handle, "deaf_e_kate "

        With a self chosen name like that, your self esteem must truly be in the toilet.

        Maybe ZD will get the connection and kill the comments
  • you're twice wrong

    if you compare NeXT position relative to the market in 1990 and apple's today situation, things are compeltly different.

    NeXT was well in advance in terms of hardware design and specification relative to the desktop market, but it was not compared to the workstation market. Neither was it expensive compared to the later. A Next Cube was half as expensive as an entry level unix workstation of that time - laking a 3D graphic card, mind you.

    How is today apple ? First their isn't any workstation market anymore. Sun, HP IBM killed thair product line from a few years ago to a few months ago. But on the other hand apple hardware spec and design is just in line with others. Same components, same functionnalities. No twice as much memory, no ECC, no SCSI, no magnetooptics... just vanilla hardware from 3rd party suppliers. They only hit high end segments, with high end design and ask a premium in terms of price, but the only differentiating points are design and operating system. Both are great, mind you, even more so for the later if you concider its basis come from the later 80s.... windows and linux still don't have an object oriented set of APIs.........
    • RE: Steve Jobs: The NeXT Years

      @s_souche Not arguing your main points, but there are OO desktop environments available for *nix (including Linux).