[FoRK] Computerworld NZ on museum exhibit about NeXT cube
<khare at alumni.caltech.edu> on
Tue Sep 11 22:03:55 PDT 2007
An astonishing little article -- if only I were swinging by kiwi
territory to see this little exhibit ;) Somewhere I have a chemical
photo of the actual info.cern.ch exhibited at the Louvre on the
occasion of the Web Conference in Paris. Nice to see him quoted
below, and even more intriguing to see a NeXT cube cutaway image --
it really is a new one to me, after all these years... --RK
Machines that count: the NeXT cube
This week, computer historian John Pratt looks at the NeXT Cube
By John Pratt, Auckland | Friday, 24 August, 2007
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-Lee 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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