After he was so rudely ejected from Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs created a new company called NeXT. They made a microcomputer that was way ahead of anything else. Unfortunately, so was its price tag: over $6000.
The NeXT cube was a machine for geeks to salivate over. It had a Digital Signal Processing chip onboard! Even if you weren’t quite sure what you might actually do with a DSP chip, having one surely had to be better than not having one. It had a magneto-optical drive, capable of storing 256MB of data on a $50 cartridge. It had Display PostScript, which gave you device-independent rendering, which sounded pretty good in a world where you tended to have to figure out how bits and bytes mapped to pixels if you wanted to get something on the screen with any degree of rapidity. And it had a load of other stuff that sounded really cool, even if you weren’t quite sure what to do with it (TCP/IP? Has a slash in its name, must be a Good Thing).
I first found out about the NeXT cube in the November 1988 issue of Byte magazine (of blessed memory). I have a vivid recollection of reading the review: I consumed all eleven text-heavy pages, plus photos and diagrams, between four and five o’clock of a Sunday morning in a bitterly cold waiting room at Birmingham New Street station, where my girlfriend and I had accidentally ended up after falling asleep on the last train from Nottingham to Leicester. (Yes, we’d been in the pub. Almost all day, actually.)
At that time I was making a modest living coding game conversions, and could only dream of being able to afford several thousands of pounds for a computer (some things never change). Yet now, I am typing this on a descendant of that machine, while occasionally checking Twitter on another descendant, and hoping that a third descendant doesn’t ring: for my MacBook, my iPad and my iPhone all run an operating system descended from that on the NeXT cube.
In fact, writing this post is a way of procrastinating when I should really be working on an iPhone app, using Apple’s developer tools – descended from, yes, the very development environment that I found so exciting when I read about it twenty-three years ago in that freezing railway station.
Only yesterday it occurred to me that I should dig out that old copy of Byte magazine and re-read their review of the NeXT cube; the constant use of classes whose names begin with “NS” tends to make me think back to that chilly autumn night. Then, in the early hours of this morning, I discovered (via my iPad) that Steve Jobs had died.
This sad news has inspired me to scan the review and put it up on this site (links are at the bottom of this post), so others can read it and maybe get some idea of the excitement a twenty-something software developer felt all those years ago. If you have difficulty imagining that feeling, well, you shouldn’t, as it was just like the excitement we’ve felt at so many new Apple products over the last decade. For the NeXT cube isn’t just a dusty relic of a long-since-vanished company: it was the precursor of the modern Mac, and of the iPhone and iPod Touch and iPad. A fundamental part of all these wonderful machines descends, not directly from the machine that was advertised by Apple Computer in 1984, but from the machine I couldn’t afford in 1988.
P.S. Although I never got to play with a NeXT, other people did. They included Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who used one to implement a bright idea of his called the World Wide Web. So it’s not just the computer on which I write this that came from Steve Jobs’ NeXT, but also the medium in which I publish it. It really was a pretty cool machine