posted by Eugenia Loli on Tue 15th Jul 2003 18:26 UTC
IconEvery so often I have this urge (maybe more of an itch) to spend hours and hours on the web trying to find information about old, obsolete computers of the past. I am intrigued by the XEROX Alto and Star ('70s-'82), the Apple Lisa ('83) and, of course, CRAYs ('75-ish). These were revolutionary machines indeed, they wrote golden pages in the history of computing. In the end of the 1980s, a new innovative product was ready to ship, created by a bunch of people coming from Apple: The NeXT platform.

NeXT Logo If you are running Mac OS X today, you are literally running an OS which is a direct descendent of NEXTSTEP and OpenStep. But what about the original article? So, we got a NeXTSTATION Turbo Color about a month ago, and we got to know NeXT and its products, "products ahead of their time" as they are commonly called even today.

When Steve Jobs was unceremoniously kicked out of Apple in 1985, he already had a vision of the computer he wanted to create that would rock the world. He found investors, and with the help of some ex-Apple engineers, he created NeXT in 1986. In two years they would already have an OS to show: NEXTSTEP 0.8 was ready, and it was based on the Mach kernel and 4.3BSD Unix. Commercial Unix was very big at that time, and Jobs had envisioned a computer that would run on research labs, universities. He wanted it to be the crown of science.

And it was impressive: The GUI was very detailed, very refined, the best looking and most advanced graphical system of its time (based on Postscript). NeXT Engineers also created a brand new language to leverage the fantastic-looking GUI: Objective C. Around that time, the first web browser in the world was created at CERN, on the NeXT platform.

In September 1990, NeXTSTEP 2.0 was released, and it would support CD-ROM devices, NFS, fax modems and color monitors. It had a brand new Workspace Manager (file manager + desktop handling), an updated terminal, spell checking as you go and even dynamic loading/unloading of drivers.

At the time of NS 2.x, NeXT would show the world an even bigger innovation: the Interface Builder and its object oriented architecture, making the creation of new application a breeze. The visual way of creating GUIs in conjunction to the reusable objects it was something unheard of at the time. It didn't only work, but it worked well.

Click for a larger version NeXT computers were also fully networked; you could send emails, faxes and sound messages to co-workers with NeXT Computers, or even via the Internet. It could even support NetWare and AppleTalk, while version 3.x of NeXTSTEP had internationalization support, a 3D Graphics Kit, a Database Kit.

Until 1993, NEXTSTEP would only work on 68030s and 68040s. But the high prices of these machines ($8,000-$20,000) didn't encourage sales. Instead, NeXT went multi-platform: they first supported Intel 486s by porting their OS to x86, and then it was HP PA-Risc and SPARC machines. The day that they announced that the NeXT hardware was dead became known as "Black Tuesday". The new multi-platform idea sounded great at first, but problem was, NeXT was too late to release their OS for the x86 CPUs, as Windows 3.1 was already there. One or two years earlier might have had a different outcome for NeXT (plus some DOS compatibility via SoftPC or an API layer). At least, as interoperability goes, NeXT introduced the "fat binaries" feature, which were specially compiled binaries that could run on all supported platforms (NeXT, Intel and Sparc or HP-PA)

The last version of NEXTSTEP was 3.3 in the beginning of 1995. One year earlier NeXT -- in association with Sun -- released the specifications of the OPENSTEP platform (framework + APIs). This specification gave the power to Sun to switch their SunOS from CDE to OpenStep for a while (they since then got back to the much uglier CDE for some weird reason ;). HP-UX also ran OPENSTEP. MacOS could do so also. Even WindowsNT had a version running the framework! Today, the only alive project that still tries to build on top of that spec is GNUstep, but it is still not completed after about 8 years of existence (90% of the APIs have been implemented so far).

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Table of contents
  1. Introducing NeXT, Page 1
  2. Introducing NeXT, Page 2
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