Feb 15, 2021
Steve Jobs had an infamous split with the board of directors of Apple and left the company shortly after the release of the original Mac. He was an innovator who at 21 years old had started Apple in the garage with Steve Wozniak and at 30 years old while already plenty wealthy felt he still had more to give and do. We can say a lot of things about him but he was arguably one of the best product managers ever.
He told Apple he’d be taking some “low-level staffers” and ended up taking Rich Page, Bud Tribble, Dan'l Lewin, George Crow, and Susan Barnes to be the CFO. They also took Susan Kare and Joanna Hoffman. had their eyes on a computer that was specifically targeting higher education. They wanted to build computers for researchers and universities.
Companies like CDC and Data General had done well in Universities. The team knew there was a niche that could be carved out there. There were some gaps with the Mac that made it a hard sell in research environments. Computer scientists needed object-oriented programming and protected memory. Having seen the work at PARC on object-oriented languages, Jobs knew the power and future-proof approach.
Unix System V had branched a number of times and it was a bit more of a red ocean than I think they realized. But Jobs put up $7 million of his own money to found NeXT Computer. He’d add another $5 million and Ross Perot would add another $20 million. The pay bands were one of the most straight-forward of any startup ever founded. The senior staff made $75,000 and everyone else got $50,000. Simple.
Ironically, so soon after the 1984 Super Bowl ad where Jobs based IBM, they hired the man who designed the IBM logo, Paul Rand, to design a logo for NeXT. They paid him $100,000 flat. Imagine the phone call when Jobs called IBM to get them to release Rand from a conflict of interest in working with them.
They released the first computer in 1988. The NeXT Computer, as it was called, was expensive for the day, coming in at $6,500. It sported a Motorola 68030 CPU and clocked in at a whopping 25 MHz. And it came with a special operating system called NeXTSTEP.
NeXTSTEP was based on the Mach kernel with some of the source code coming from BSD. If we go back a little, Unix was started at Bell Labs in 1969 and by the late 70s had been forked from Unix System V to BSD, Unix version 7, and PWB - with each of those resulting in other forks that would eventually become OpenBSD, SunOS, NetBSD, Solaris, HP-UX, Linux, AIX, and countless others.
Mach was developed at Carnegie Mellon University and is one of the earliest microkernels. For Mach, Richard Rashid (who would later found Microsoft Research) and Avie Tevanian, were looking specifically to distributed computing. And the Mach project was kicked off in 1985, the same year Jobs left Apple.
Mach was backwards-compatible to BSD 4.2 and so could run a pretty wide variety of software. It allowed for threads, or units of execution and tasks or objects that enabled threads. It provided support for messages, which for object oriented languages are typed data objects that fall outside the scope of tasks and threads and then a protected message queue, to manage the messages between tasks and rights of access. They stood it up on a DEC VAX and released it publicly in 1987.
Here’s the thing, Unix licensing from Bell Labs was causing problems. So it was important to everyone that the license be open. And this would be important to NeXT as well. NeXT needed a next-generation operating system and so Avi Tevanian was recruited to join NeXT as the Vice President of Software Engineering. There, he designed NeXTSTEP with a handful of engineers.
The computers had custom boards and were fast. And they were a sleek black like nothing I’d seen before. But Bill Gates was not impressed claiming that “If you want black, I’ll get you a can of paint.” But some people loved the machines and especially some of the tools NeXT developed for programmers.
They got a factory to produce the machines and it only needed to crank out 100 a month as opposed to the thousands it was built to produce. In other words, the price tag was keeping universities from buying the machines. So they pivoted a little. They went up-market with the NeXTcube in 1990, which ran NeXTSTEP, OPENSTEP, or NetBSD and came with the Motorola 68040 CPU. This came machine in at $8,000 to almost $16,000. It came with a hard drive. For the lower end of the market they also released the NeXTstation in 1990, which shipped for just shy of $5,000.
The new models helped but by 1991 they had to lay off 5 percent of the company and another 280 by 1993. That’s when the hardware side got sold to Canon so NeXT could focus exclusively on NeXTSTEP. That is, until they got acquired by Apple in 1997.
By the end, they’d sold around 50,000 computers. Apple bought NeXT for $429 million and 1.5 million shares of Apple stock, trading at 22 cents at the time, which was trading at $17 a share so worth another $25 and a half million dollars. That makes the deal worth $454 million or $9,080 per machine NeXT had ever built. But it wasn’t about the computer business, which had already been spun down. It was about Jobs and getting a multi-tasking, object-oriented, powerhouse of an operating system, the grandparent of OS X - and the derivative macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS forks.
The work done at NeXT has had a long-term impact on the computer industry as a whole. For one, the spinning pinwheel on a Mac. And the Dock. And the App Store. And Objective-C. But also Interface Builder as an IDE was revolutionary. Today we use Xcode. But many of the components go back all the way. And so much more.
After the acquisition, NeXT became Mac OS X Server in 1999 and by 2001 was Mac OS X. The rest there is history. But the legacy of the platform is considerable. Just on NeXTSTEP we had a few pretty massive successes.
Tim Berners-Lee developed the first web browser WorldWideWeb on NeXTSTEP for a NeXT . Other browsers for other platforms would come but his work became the web as we know it today. The machine he developed the web on is now on display at the National Museum of Science and Media in the UK.
We also got games like Quake, Heretic, Stife, and Doom from Interface Builder. And webobjects. And the people.
Tevanian came with NeXT to Apple as the Senior Vice President of Software Engineering. Jobs became an advisor, then CEO. Craig Federighi came with the acquisition as well - now Apple’s VP of software engineering. And I know dozens of others who came in from NeXT and helped reshape the culture at Apple.
Next.com still redirects to Apple.com. It took three years to ship that first computer at NeXT. It took 2 1/2 years to develop the iPhone. The Apple II, iPod, iPad, and first iMac were much less. Nearly 5 years for the original Mac. Some things take a little more time to flush out than others. Some need the price of components or new components to show up before you know it can be insanely great. Some need false starts like the Steve Jobs Steve Jobs famously said Apple wanted to create a computer in a book in 1983. That finally came out with the release of the iPad in 2010, 27 years later.
And so the final component of the Apple acquisition of NeXT to mention is Steve Jobs himself. He didn’t initially come in. He’d just become a billionaire off Pixar and was doing pretty darn well. His arrival back at Apple signified the end of a long draught for the company and all those products we mentioned and the iTunes music store and the App Store (both initially built on WebObjects) would change the way we consume content forever. His impact was substantial. For one, after factoring stock splits, the company might still be trading at .22 cents a share, which is what it would be today with all that. Instead they’re the most highly valued company in the world. But that pales in comparison to the way he and his teams and that relentless eye to product and design has actually changed the world. And the way his perspectives on privacy help protect us today, long after he passed.
The heroes journey (as described is a storytelling template that follows a hero from disgrace, to learn the mistakes of their past and reinvent themselves amidst a crisis throughout a grand adventure, and return home transformed. NeXT and Pixar represent part of that journey here. Which makes me wonder: what is my own Monomyth? Where will I return to? What is or was my abyss? These can be large or small. And while very few people in the world will have one like Steve Jobs did, we should all reflect on ours and learn from them. And yes that was plural because life is not so simple that there is one.
The past, and our understanding of it, predicts the future. Good luck on your journey.