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Relic: NeXT Computer

Steve Jobs was known as one of the most innovative technological minds in the history of personal computers. Having started Apple in 1976 with Steve Wozniak, he had become an overnight success with the Apple II (1977) and Macintosh (1984). Both are considered watershed moments in personal computing history as the Macintosh was the first mass-produced PC with a graphical user interface (GUI). However, that did not last long, and Jobs was forced out of his own company by 1985. Jobs formed NeXT, which would focus mostly on the higher education and business markets. His first project at the new company was the NeXT Computer.

NeXT Computer was unveiled in October 1988 in San Francisco, California. Steve Jobs was the speaker at “The NeXT Day” at the San Francisco Hilton. Educators and software developers were in attendance. It debuted for USD 6,500 (around USD 13,770 in 2018) and had a new operating system, NeXTSTEP. The PC also featured a Motorola 68030 at 25 MHz, 68882 FPU at 25 MHz, and a 56001 digital signal processor (DSP) at 25 MHz. It shipped with 8 MB of memory which was expandable to 16 MB of RAM, and featured a 256 MB optical drive and optional hard disk. The NeXT PC was unusual in that it had a cube-shaped tower (as opposed to the towers we see on desktop PCs today).

The NeXT Computer was critically acclaimed—one magazine said that it showed “what can be done when a personal computer is designed as a system, and not a collection of hardware elements.” It was ahead of its time with an optical drive, DSP, as well as an object-oriented programming environment which was rare at the time. Despite its beefy specifications, it had nowhere near the commercial success of the Apple II, Commodore 64, Macintosh, or Microsoft Windows PCs, but gained a very niche audience, mostly in business, education, finance, and government.

Why is the NeXT Computer so important? Tim Berners-Lee used a NeXT Computer to invent the Internet. The world’s first web server (CERN httpd) and web browser (WorldWideWeb) were developed on the NeXT Computer between 1990 and 1994. The NeXT Computer was also used to develop the first electronic app store, the Electronic AppWrapper, in 1991. First-person shooter (FPS) games such as Doom, Doom II, and Quake were all developed on NeXT machines at id Software, alongside other games that used the Doom engine such as Hexen, Heretic, and Strife. The world’s first online food delivery system was also developed on a NeXT machine, long before people sat at home and ordered food from home (Jobs’ first order was pizza with tomato and basil).

The NeXT Computer is arguably one of the most unheralded inventions, yet one of the most important ones as it pioneered the Internet, award-winning games, phone apps, and more. While Jobs did ultimately return to Apple in 1997 (after founding Pixar in 1986, which produced the first 3D computer animated film, Toy Story) and brought the NeXT Computer with him, his time away from Apple allowed him to become more innovative and pioneered some staples of technology today.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE September 2019 Issue
Words by Jose Alvarez