[FoRK] Computerworld NZ on museum exhibit about NeXT cube

Rohit Khare <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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