Macworld Magazine, March 1989

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy

The NeXT Best Thing

Advice for Mac owners with CPU envy

On the day after, I found myself in a room with two objects of desire. Black cubes stuffed with unspeakably wondrous digital mojo. Machines that had Silicon Valley squirming with ecstasy. (Maybe the whole country squirming with ecstasy.) These were prototypes of the NeXT computer, which had been introduced the previous day.

You have heard news of this event perhaps? It was described as a computer Woodstock, though in reality it bore little resemblance to that serendipitous outburst that became cultural history. It was more like the computer industry’s version of the ultimate film premiere, the difference being that no one seemed to mind that, save for a few well-crafted scenes, the movie wasn’t exhibited. It was like Steven Spielberg renting an opera house in October and describing his sequel to E.T., planned for release next summer. And then stepping out of the way so he wouldn’t be flattened by the herd of theater operators stampeding to reserve their prints.

Now, after months of speculation, I and some fellow writers were alone with the machines, which, significantly, were not turned on. That was no surprise: after all, there won’t be crash-proof versions of the software until well into 1989. Still, the computer was impressive, especially in light of what we had learned about it yesterday: the power of a mainframe in a 12-inch cube. A visual display crisper than Melba toast. More storage than Allied Van Lines. A sound system that will make Dolby look like a piker. All in all, the litany went, this would be the hottest machine in creation, the one the dead would rise up for, the computer that was so cool that the upcoming decade had inked it in as its steady date. But we weren’t looking at the computers. Journalists all, the seven of us in the room were looking at the door. Because that was where the real story was going to appear. And sure enough, before we could fully savor the aroma of the coffee poured in mugs emblazoned with the $100,000 NeXT logo, the story appeared, in the form of a trim, slickly dressed, neatly coiffed 33 year-old who looked like the cat who just swallowed the computer industry.

Guess who.

Heeee’s Back

You don’t have to guess, do you? You know this man. He was the force behind the Macintosh. The former chairman of the board at Apple Computer. Known to MBAs as “Mr. Entrepreneur.” Known to IBM as “partner” (Big Blue has licensed NeXTStep, a software-development system; for this privilege they reportedly gave Jobs a $10 million fee and respectability worth several times that figure). Known to his employees as a cross between Simon Legree, Preston Tucker, and George Gipper, Steve Jobs, blazing onto the comeback trail, on the covers of Business Week and Newsweek; the visionary behind the NeXT computer.

“Well,” he asks us, still with that grin. “What do you think?”

There is some ambivalent mumbling from the peanut gallery. After all, as journalists, we have to be, uh, objective, don’t we?

We don’t. More to the point, we aren’t. Though to our credit we did not sink to the bait and bleat out the words that Steve Jobs longed to hear (Oh Steve your machine is mahvelous, Apple is a goner, you 've done it again!), we did just as good—we gave Jobs and the unveiling coverage as if it were the event of the decade. How much of this was due to the man, and not the technology? Just about all of it. It was a rare chance for business reporters to practice gut celebrity journalism, and since the nation at large cares more about celebrity than it does about computers, editors regarded too much coverage of NeXT as just about the right amount. Steve Jobs was smart enough to go with the flow; indeed, he was canny enough to direct it, so he and his company could get maximum impact from the long-postponed introduction.

Make no mistake about it: the press, and the computer press in particular, wanted Jobs’s machine to be a hit. That way, our coverage would be justified, and we’d have the colorful CEO to write about for the next few years. Never before in the computer field has the line between journalism and public relations been so blurred.

But it would be unfair to say that the accolades bestowed upon the NeXT computer were groundless. On first impression the NeXT machine looks like a winner. It is a well-conceived computing engine for the 1990s. It also benefits from the same je ne sais quoi with which the Macintosh brimmed upon its introduction.

It incorporates several state-of-the-art innovations (most notably a rewritable optical disk drive that cheaply stores enough information to fill a small library), and unveils a daring new architecture centered around a virtual “mainframe-on-two-chips.” It includes a development system that allow's even novice programmers to dramatically cut the time it takes to create software for the machine. Its audio capabilities enable it not only to synthesize music, but to carry on the practical work of voicemail and other digital-sound tasks.

At $8500 for a machine and printer. NeXT delivers the power and features of technology that costs more than twice that price. It also looks hot, with its hardware stuffed in a black cube that could have been salvaged from a George Lucas film. All this and cursor keys! Is it any wonder that I want one? Because, although I did not reply to Steve Jobs that day, I was thinking exactly what he wanted me to think.

Pain in the NeXT

But first impressions aren’t everything. Now that I’ve had some time to mull over the NeXT computer, I think I can safely assure my fellow Macintosh owners that we have no cause to junk our machines anytime soon. Of course, this early reevaluation is largely speculative, since there are no NeXT computers available for hands-on testing. But 1 can see several obstacles on the path to NeXT’s goal—to be the “computer of the nineties”—and Jobs, celebrity or not, will have to address them before his company fulfills its considerable potential.

First of all, he will have to figure out some way to deal with the problem of software distribution. Though one of the nicest features of the NeXT machine is the brand new optical disk technology, the computer is handicapped by the lack of any other built-in storage medium. No floppy disk, for instance. I suspect that this choice was motivated by “religion,” the same Jobs-inspired perfectionism that dictated five years ago just what the Macintosh would and would not have. As a result, the Mac appeared with brand-new 3 ½-inch disk technology but no external storage, and users got sore wrists swapping disks back and forth. With the NeXT machine users look forward to the ultimate disk swap: backing up a 256-megabyte optical disk.

Jobs himself suggested ways to get around that problem (users can plug in SCSI storage devices for backup, for instance). But his response was weak when someone asked him how commercial software would be distributed. Those optical disks will cost about $50 each, and few developers see them as a good medium for distribution. Jobs said that developers could save money by putting documentation on the disk and not printing it. (This suggestion ignores the fact that hard-copy documentation is the best hedge against piracy.) Jobs’s other suggestions ranged from “getting programs from the network” (good for shareware, not good for commercial software) to the idea of a NeXT-distributed disk loaded with hundreds of intentionally disabled programs that could be activated by getting (for a price) the code that unleashes the program. Developers are not wild about that idea, either. Eventually Jobs mumbled something about site licensing on campus. Software distribution is an issue that NeXT must work out more carefully.

The second big problem is the machine’s price. It is very low for a powerful workstation, but high for a personal computer. Most college students can get Mac SE-ImageWriter combinations at a third of the cost of the NeXT line. Jobs points out that since NeXT technology is brand-new, the component prices are at their peak and will eventually come down considerably. (This statement, though, is at odds with his boasting about the allegedly huge price breaks he has gotten from suppliers.) In any case, the price had better come down, because right now the NeXT machine is too costly for students.

Jobs concedes this, but says that his initial market will be the universities themselves, and some faculty. But what good is it to put easy-to-program NeXT boxes in the hands of professors if the courseware they produce can’t run on the students’ own computers? It is a huge step backward if NeXT is proposing a series of computing centers on campuses where students will have to wait in line to use the machines. We’ve all fought long and hard for the “one person, one machine” concept. Why give it up for megapixel graphics and Shakespeare online? (I have heard that books are a low cost and user-friendly medium, ideal for students.) I don’t think Jobs wants us to give up the personal computing ideal—he’d prefer a price closer to the $3000 he originally shot for, but he can’t do it now.

Strange-Attractor Processing

Finally, I think that as people get accustomed to what the NeXT machine can and can’t do. Jobs will have to cope with an increasingly vocal “so-what” factor. While the NeXT technology is truly amazing, until we see conceptual breakthroughs in software applications, the machine really won’t do more for most people than a plain old SE will. The Macintosh popularized a revolutionary form of computing clearly visible in every application. The NeXT machine provides a clear advantage only to those who are attempting the kinds of tasks that a Macintosh can’t easily perform.

For instance, I hear that WriteNow’s performance on the NeXT machine is not significantly better than it is on the Mac. Keep in mind that most computer users stick to simple applications like word processing, spreadsheets, page layout, and databases. When Jobs demonstrated the NeXT machine, he didn’t use any of those programs—he had some wirehead professor from Reed College come onstage and use the NeXT machine to visually plot the mathematically challenging problem of strange attractors. A certain percentage of computer users on campuses will find this useful, but I suspect that, like myself, most folks have relatively little need to plot strange attractors during the course of a day. Nor are we constantly performing the other kinds of simulations that the NeXT machine seems to specialize in, stuff like rotating pictures of complex molecules.

Right now, Jobs’s answer to the practicality question is that the NeXT machine is directed at a special audience—those involved in higher education, who do have reasons to rotate molecules and explore other esoteric pursuits. But this disclaimer seems coy. After all, at the introduction Jobs proudly showed slides illustrating the NeXT machine ascending to operating system supremacy in the entire computer world around 1992—thus accepting the baton from the Mac operating system, which. Jobs opined, would peak in 1989 and then begin its decline. (He says he already has noted “cracks in the Mac operating system,” presumably cracks that will widen to chasms by the time the NeXT machine is ready for mass production.)

Is this admittedly self-serving prediction credible? It is, if and only if software developers—big companies, not just the elbow-patch crowd Jobs is currently wooing—come up with as-yet-undreamed-of ways to exploit the terrific powers of the NeXT machine. The big danger for Jobs is that his competitors, notably Apple, might well incorporate many of his innovations into its future offerings and win the customers that NeXT is aiming for. In that case, the NeXT machine will have benefited all of us by raising the technological ante—while failing in the marketplace.

The rosy scenario, though, is that the talented Jobs will once again have the benefit of luck on his side—as he did with the Macintosh. At one point in the Mac’s life cycle it appeared that innovation would not be enough, and the machine needed some outside boosts to become successful. If similar, unforeseen boosts aid the NeXT machine, Steve Jobs will have done it again, and those magazine cover stories will seem prescient.

Election, What Election?

A final anecdote about the well-documented Mr. Jobs. At the end of our conversation that day someone mentioned that Steve’s duties at this day-after-the-intro session were akin to a spin doctor's. This term—referring to someone who puts the most positive face on events—had become well known during the presidential election campaign, then nearing a climax. But Jobs was totally unfamiliar with the term. It seems that his dedication to bringing his computer to market had been so complete that he totally missed the gist of the Dukakis-Bush battle. Knowing that both candidates had made certain promises concerning higher education—the federal funding of which would be relevant to NeXT, which hopes to sell computers in droves to colleges—I asked Jobs which candidate would better help his company if elected. He didn’t have the slightest idea.

Once again. Jobs had zipped himself and his team into a cocoon where developing ground-breaking technology was the obsessive function. Though that degree of solipsism can be dangerous, it can also break a team from the bounds of conventional thinking. Great things can emerge. This is what has happened with the NeXT machine, and it has already had a beneficial effect on the industry I can now go back to my Macintosh knowing that future versions of the Mac will be better than they would have been otherwise—because Apple has to respond to the NeXT machine.

No one is happier with the way things unfolded than Steve Jobs, who ended our meeting with many questions yet unanswered. But we do have answers to at least two big questions.

Is the NeXT machine great? Looks that way. What should Mac owners do? Unless you’re into the scientific simulations and such, go back to your MultiFinders. And check out NeXT in 1992 or so.

Steven Levy is a Macworld columnist and the author of the Unicorn’s Secret: Murder in the Age of Aquarius (Prentice-Hall, 1988).