What is the Next Computer?

Robert Grimmick

NeXT Computer Inc. was a maker of computer hardware and software formed by Apple® co-founder Steve Jobs in 1985. Its first product was also officially known as the NeXT Computer, and referred to by many as "the cube." NeXT struggled in the hardware market for several years before porting their UNIX-based operating system to other platforms and focusing exclusively on software. Apple® purchased the company in 1996, and a number of NeXT technologies made their way into a new generation of Apple® products.

Steve Jobs founded NeXT Computer Inc. in 1985.
Steve Jobs founded NeXT Computer Inc. in 1985.

Jobs formed NeXT Inc., later NeXT Computer Inc., after resigning from Apple® following an internal power struggle. The company's first product was the NeXT Computer System, a sleek black cube-shaped box made of magnesium that was aimed at higher education markets. It was billed as a "3M computer," an unofficial specification for computer workstations with at least a megabyte of memory, a display with a million or more pixels, and a processor capable of at least a million calculations per second. The first NeXT workstations didn't quite meet all the criteria, but were substantially more powerful than personal computers at time, making them attractive to some academic and government customers.

A standard NeXT Computer included no hard drive.
A standard NeXT Computer included no hard drive.

When it was released in 1989, the NeXT computer also had a number of features that set it apart from other computers of the era. It was designed to maximize data transfer speeds between different components, and had three Motorola microprocessors — a 25 megahertz central processing unit (CPU), a floating point unit (FPU) for mathematical calculations, and a digital signal processor (DSP) capable of producing Compact Disc (CD) quality sound. The included operating system, NeXTStep, was based on Unix® and featured a graphical user interface with full multitasking, meaning multiple programs could run at once. Standard configurations included no hard drive, relying instead on a unique magneto-optical drive that used both lasers and magnets. An object-oriented programming environment was included, and a new graphics technology called Display PostScript made on-screen images appear much closer to how they would look when printed.

By 1993, NeXT had released a variety of additional models, including the NeXT Cube and NeXTstation, but was facing sluggish sales due to the relatively high cost of its hardware. The company dropped its focus on computer hardware in favor of concentrating on the NeXTStep operating system. NeXTStep was modified to run on different computer architectures, and eventually evolved into the standard known as OpenStep released by NeXT and Sun in October of 1994.

NeXT ultimately failed as a commercial entity in its own right, but technology and key personnel from the company contributed to the resurgence of Apple®, who purchased NeXT for over $400 million US Dollars in 1996. Major portions of OpenStep were used as the basis for Mac OS® X, a more capable and modern operating system than previous system software released for the Mac®. WebObjects®, a web application sever and environment developed at NeXT, went on to power the immensely successful iTunes® Music Store. The acquisition also brought Jobs back to Apple®, where he quickly became CEO and launched a number of successful products.

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