Steve Jobs's NeXT Best Thing?

Steve made another beautiful, expensive, and mostly useless box called the NeXT Computer, or Cube. He paid a consultant US$100,000 to come up with the name. Alan Kay, the architect of the GUI, said that NeXT had something in common with the first Mac, “they were like models of Steve's head: brilliant, charming, but with no input jacks”.[1]  

Unlike the winsome little Macintosh, the darksome NeXT looked more like Satan’s personal computer. In a back-handed blow of irony, Steve recruited the same designer who created the Snow White aesthetic for the Mac, Hartmut Esslinger. It’s a testament to Steve’s charm that he successfully lured Hartmut away from his lucrative million-dollar a year contract with Apple. Hartmut said the NeXT Cube was meant to embody Steve’s revenge. It’s cold obsidian finish reflected a company that wanted to be taken as seriously as a heart attack. 

This dark digital vendetta was a result of Steve’s usual ‘marketing focus group of one’ - himself.  Why did Steve choose an expensive magnesium casing? The highly flammable metal is relatively light and tough; but so was the injection-moulded plastic he used for the Apple II. Magnesium was used for the body of the silver Mercedes 300 SLR roadster that Stirling Moss drove to victory in the Mille Miglia during the year Steve was born.[2] Could the magnesium cube be a by-product of his fetish for silver Mercedes's roadsters? Whatever his reason, the casing only made the thing more expensive and cumbersome to build.

Steve invited one of his favourite photographers Doug Menuez, from Life Magazine, to follow the build and release of his NeXT computer. Doug was meant to shoot a story in pictures that would be immortalise NeXT in the pages of a coffee table book. Doug had completed a similar project for another ill-fated gadget, Apple’s Newton. After a few years and few thousand photographs, Steve decided to kill the project. He said he felt “over exposed”. [3]  Studying the few photographs that are available, it’s understandable why he felt this way. Doug revealed a lonely, guarded, and occasionally childish Steve. A coffee table book filled with these pictures would make a liar of his new mellowed image. 

He told New York Times that, ''I think we have an opportunity to take the next big technological step, and leapfrog Microsoft and everybody else.''[4] Unfortunately for Steve, his fancy computer was a fabulous failure. He spent US$250 million to sell only 50,000 units. Apple sold more computers in a day than NeXT did in a year. Sales figures were inflated for public consumption. Nothing at NeXT was what it seemed, for example, the cube was not a real cube - one side was a little larger than the rest. The only demographic that was attracted to the black box was the CIA. The spooks were his biggest customer. In the year the Cube was shut down, Compaq were selling Windows-loaded Presarios seven times cheaper than NeXT.

In a meeting at NeXT's headquarters on the shore of San Francisco Bay, he looked around at the besieged refugees of his thinned-out executive team and he told them, in a tone of bitterness and envy: "Everyone here can leave -- except me".[5]

The aloof magnesium box had one saving grace - NeXTSTEP. This operating system was the Excalibur of software. Steve made sure the GUI was so exquisite that Da Vinci could have drawn it. Its ability to protect memory and do many things at once was nothing short of miraculous. Best of all, developers loved it because they could write programs faster and easier for NeXTSTEP compared to Windows or Mac. In fact, the first web browser ever written was made for NeXTSTEP. The code still lives in Tim Berner-Lee’s NeXT computer that sits behind a pane of glass at the CERN museum in Switzerland. Tim was later knighted by the Queen of England for inventing the World Wide Web on Steve’s computer.  

Apple desperately needed to seduce developers like Tim and jump on the web surfing bandwagon. Apple bought NeXTSTEP for an exorbitant sum, and Steve moved back into Apple’s Cupertino office. Finally, Steve had found redemption. He said to New York Times that the move ''fulfils the spiritual reasons for starting NeXT.''[6] All he ever wanted was to prove to Apple that he was worth inviting back into the fold.

[1] Patton, P. (1993, December) Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing. Wired Magazine.

[3] Deutschman, A. (2000) The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. New York: Broadway.

[4] Lohr, S. (1997, January 12). Creating Jobs. New York Times.

[5] Deutschman, A. (2000) The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. New York: Broadway.

[6] Lohr, S. (1997, January 12). Creating Jobs. New York Times.

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