Machines that count: the NeXT cube

This week, computer historian John Pratt looks at the NeXt Cube

Computer historian John Pratt, curator of the “Machines that Count” exhibition on now at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology, provides weekly insights into the history of computing.

After Steve Jobs’ unceremonious ouster from Apple computer in 1985 he sold all but one of his Apple shares and cast about for something else to do. It was at a lunch with Nobel laureate Paul Berg, who was trying to sequence the human genome, that Jobs realised there was a gap in the market for a powerful workstation in the education sector.

Jobs decided to target the million instructions per second, megabyte of memory and million-pixel resolution identified by Stanford University as ideal for such tasks.

The NeXT cube might go unnoticed but for the iconic cube itself, designed by Hartmut Esslinger’s Frog Design. Even the NeXT logo was iconic, the last design by Paul Rand, who actually died at his desk in NeXT’s offices.

Inside the NeXT cube was Motorola’s 32-bit 68030 processor, running at 16MHz, along with a math co-processor and digital signal processors. The NeXT cube was the first machine with on-board stereo processors, capable of processing 8-bit stereo in real-time. Jobs was the consummate salesman and the rumour mill had it that Jobs paid Motorola less for the entire chipset than Apple was paying for the CPU.

NeXT’s software was written around the Mach Unix kernel, originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University to provide hardware abstraction on a variety of processor platforms. Avie Tevanian moved from CMU to NeXT and continued to work on the software, and eventually developed what became the key to NeXT’s success.

Taking its cue from the operating system, NeXT application architecture was based on loosely coupled software objects connected by a kind of messaging framework. NeXT’s initial customers included universities and research institutions, and as they solved their own requirements they published their software objects in an “ObjectWare” catalogue published by NeXT, and on the user’s bulletin board. Complex applications were created by coupling these functional objects together.

The NeXT display used display Postscript to produce smoothly rendered screen images that translated directly to print. NeXT’s laser printer was practically the same as Apple’s first LaserWriter, based as it was on the same Canon engine.

Early NeXT fans included Tim Berners-Lee, who created the first web server and browser on his NeXT machine at CERN. He described the user interface as, “beautiful, smooth and intuitive”. Starting in October, Berners-Le had his applications running by Christmas Eve 1990.

If NeXT stumbled, it was in making one innovation too many. The first NeXT machines featured a Canon magneto-optical drive that contained 256MB on a cartridge about the size of a CD in it’s own caddy. The NeXT box shipped with the operating system, Webster’s dictionary and the complete works of Shakespeare installed.

The idea was that users could store their applications, files and everything on their own MO disk and move between machines as required, but 256MB wasn’t enough and the MO drive was way too slow to take advantage of the speed of the NeXT machine. NeXT soon caved and started shipping 5.25-inch hard disks inside the machines.

The cube was late to market, and the lack of mature software meant that it wasn’t a going concern in the consumer market, but about 50,000 NeXT machines in cube and the later pizza-box format were sold before NeXT stopped making hardware to concentrate on a version of it’s operating system for other platforms.

IBM licensed OpenSTEP, but finally it was no less than Apple that acquired NeXT’s software, the company that made it, and Steve Jobs into the bargain. OpenSTEP became OSX, Steve Jobs became CEO, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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