Apple Computer is buying Next Inc for $400m in order to integrate the future MacOS with NextStep OS technology - and Steve Jobs, who left the company he co-founded to start Next in 1985, is coming home to Apple.
Although Jobs' return will be in only a part-time capacity, as an adviser to Apple CEO Gil Amelio, even Jean-Louis Gassee, founder of Be Inc and another Apple veteran, congratulated Apple on bringing him back to the fold.
Much of the speculation on Apple's search for outside help to revamp the MacOS had focused on Be, but, Amelio quipped as he made the announce at a press conference, "we picked Plan A instead of Plan B." On a more serious note, he characterised the Next product line as providing a complement to Apple's technologies. "The pieces fit together better than any alternative we looked at," he said.
Knitting the Pieces Together
Amelio provided few details about how Apple will incorporate the Next technology, but he made it clear that elements of the NextStep operating system will be integrated with the Mac OS. "The Next technology is operable now," he said. "The challenge is to knit the pieces together. Our goal is to get there in 1997 on Apple hardware."
He promised that future system software from Apple will be capable of running current Macintosh applications.
Apple chief technology officer Ellen Hancock noted that the Next operating system offers memory protection and pre-emptive multi-tasking, features that were originally promised in Apple's ill-fated Copland. The Next OS is based on Mach, a Unix variant that was also to provide the kernel for Copland.
Amelio said the Next technology was especially strong for Internet and corporate enterprise applications, two areas of strategic importance for Apple.
Further details about Apple's operating system strategy - and its plans for incorporating the Next technology - will be presented during his keynote address on January 7 at Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Return to Past Glory?
For his part Jobs says the acquisition will help Apple regain its position as a technology leader in an industry that has lost much of its innovative spirit. "People find it easier to copy things than invent new things," he says. "It's become a very incremental industry."
In a subtle dig at Be, he notes that the Next software "is not just some pipe dream, not just demo ware."
Jobs touts Next's advantages for software developers, claiming that they can create "compelling" applications that they cannot write for other systems. It was, he says, third-party products like PageMaker, PostScript, and Macromedia Director that helped establish the Macintosh as a platform for innovation.
When he speaks with Next developers, Jobs says, they tell him two things: it's the most advanced platform for software development, and "please find a way to get this in high volume." The latter request, he hopes, will be answered with the acquisition by Apple.
In addition to heading Next, Jobs is CEO of Pixar, the Richmond, California, developer of 3-D graphics software that also produced the hit animated film "Toy Story." He hints that Pixar might soon find itself in a relationship with Apple. "There's a lot of synergy between the technology Pixar has and what Apple wants to do," he said.
While the Next acquisition appears to bring much-needed technology into Apple's fold, questions remain. The Next operating system currently does not run on the PowerPC CPU, which forms the basis for Apple's computer systems. However, Jobs says the operating system is highly portable, and will help Apple better adapt to new processor technologies as they become available.
Another issue is the ease with which Jobs will fit into the new Apple given Amelio's often-stated goal of bringing more discipline to the company's free-wheeling culture. Jobs had much to do with establishing that culture, and was fired from Apple in 1985 after disagreements with John Sculley, another CEO who promised to impose greater discipline.
"When you get to be a $10 billion corporation, a certain amount of corporate discipline is required," Amelio said. "But it can be a problem if you overdo it." His goal, he said, was to strike a balance between maintaining a creative atmosphere and following standard business practices.
For more information about the acquisition, including a letter to customers from Amelio, see http://product.info.apple.com/pr/source/news.html on the Apple Web site.