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The NeXT and Former King

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The NeXT and Former King -- The Boy Who Cried, "Insanely Great!"


by John Perry Barlow. Thursday, May 30, 1991


This could be a long piece. So, if you've just grabbed Microtimes to check the clone ads and see if they've started giving them away yet, I'll come right to the point:


IF YOU'RE LOOKING TO BUY A COMPUTER FOR ALMOST ANY PURPOSE, BUY A NEXT! AND DO IT NOW BEFORE EVERYONE ELSE DISCOVERS THEY REALLY ARE INSANELY GREAT!


This method of introduction has a couple of advantages. First, you can still grab my main thrust even if this page is already lining the bottom of your bird cage, and second, it strips away all pretense of journalistic objectivity right at the get-go. I am not rational on this subject. It's only a matter of time before I find myself saying something like, "Hi, I'm John, and I am a NeXThead." And the other haunted souls in the church basement will clap and murmur, "Hi, John."


It's that bad. Rarely have I taken on an addiction with such conscious awareness of what I was getting myself into. I mean, going down to NeXT for a machine demo from Steve Jobs himself is asking to have one's reality, well, enhanced... After 40 minutes of watching one of the world's great demonstrators put the New, Improved, NeXT through it's lightning paces, I staggered away with one thought in mind: I must have one of my own.


Actually, I'd thought this once before, only to be disabused of it. A veteran aficionado of digital snake oil, I crashed the NeXT roll-out, and had come out of Davies Hall well convinced that there was a NeXT in my future. But this bubble burst on first contact with the real thing. A friend at Autodesk let me spend an afternoon with his NeXT and I found it to be unacceptably flawed.


Speed, or the lack thereof, was the first among it's deficiencies. Putting UNIX, Mach, Display PostScript, and NeXTstep on top of a 68030, even at 25 mhz, created the computer equivalent of a man with a 200 pound head. Screen redraws were like something that might happen in the darkroom. And the floptical drive felt more floppy than hard in its I/O.


Nor did the thing seem to be especially stable for a UNIX box. I managed to lock up most of the programs I tried and even managed to seize the whole machine a couple of times. The interface seemed graphically very cool...it has kind of a film noir quality...but it was not very deep. Simple acts like copying files could be accomplished either by a lot of head-scratching effort or by resorting to UNIX commands, an extremity to which I preferred not to be driven.


Finally, there wasn't much real software for it and, despite the purported ease with which it could be written, I couldn't easily imagine much development taking place when the distribution medium, read/write opticals, cost a subsidized fifty bucks still blank.


At that point, I thought that NeXT was destined to be another quaint collector's item, a forward-looking failure like the Edsel or, for that matter, the Lisa. But in reaching that assessment, I was ignoring an essential element in the psychology of Steven Paul Jobs.


Steve Jobs, generally enigmatic as his black boxes, has one predictable trait: he likes to shoot himself in the foot every once in awhile so that he can become an Olympic sprinter while recovering from the injury. He did it with the Lisa, he did it with the Macintosh (though he got kicked off the team before it won Gold). And now it appears he has done it with the NeXT.


The NeXT, Rev. 2 addresses every single one of its predecessor's deficiencies, overcoming them so triumphantly that it is now years ahead of the competition in nearly every sense that I can think of. Furthermore, it has moderated many of its former eccentricities without retrenchment to a safer or less advanced technological position.


The Machine(s)

Like Model T's, NeXTs come in any color you like as long as it's black. Beyond that, the range of choice opens into such a diversity of models and configurations that it's misleading to speak of the NeXT as one computer.


I'll begin by focusing on the elements which all new NeXTs have in common. They are all built around Motorola's incandescent new 68040, running at 25 mhz. If you believe in such things, they can chew up and spit out around 15+ MIPS with a couple of megaflops on the side. (For purposes of comparison, a SparcStation SLC is rated at 12 MIPS, while a Macintosh IIfx seems to process about 5 MIPS.)


Of course, processing capacity is less important than the feel of the machine, as many are now discovering when they saddle their supposedly fast 386 PC's with the burden of a graphical user interface. The NeXT interface is still a lot of equipment to haul around, but between the 68040 and the suite of fundamental improvements which went into NeXTStep 2.0, this thing feels faster than bugs on fire. Highly formatted documents scroll as though text on a fast clone. Everything, whether it's launching a program, opening a window, or running a search and replace, happens with a crispness that is almost sexually arousing.


As before, all NeXTs include a Motorola 56001 digital signal processing chip and, at the very least, 8 megabytes of RAM. The DSP is an amazing and, so far, little utilized item. It gives the NeXT the sound-processing capacities to become the studio engine of the decade. All that's missing right now is the software. The 56001 is not limited to processing sound though. I got a sense of its horsepower from a demo Mandelbrot program which NeXT bundles. Using the DSP to process its calculations, this software filled the 17" screen with Benoit's Bug in a minute and five seconds (as contrasted by the hour or more required by the 68882 in my SE/30.


NeXTs are made to be networked, so other features common to all motherboards include both Thin and 10Base-T Ethernet ports as well as two serial ports with hardware flow control. This is also a direct port to the DSP chip and a fifty, rather than, twenty pin SCSI port. (NeXT SCSI, by the way, adheres to the full set of SCSI protocols rather than Apple's perverse reinterpretation of them. Nevertheless, most of the Macintosh SCSI devices which I attached to the NeXT seemed to work without the addition of special drivers.)


All of the new machines come with both a 3.5" floppy disk drive and a hard disk of one size or another, ranging from 105 megs to twin 1.4 gigabyte drives. The floppy disk drives are capable of reading and writing UNIX disks in 1.44 or 2.88 megabyte capacity as well as 7.2 and 1.44 megabyte DOS disks. (Also, with the addition of DIT's estimable FloppyWorks, they will read and write high density Macintosh disks).


Finally, all NeXT motherboards have an internal traffic cop in the form of an integrated direct memory access processor capable of supporting 8 DMA channels at 32 MB/sec. By taking much of the load-sorting away from the CPU, this makes the very fast 68040 seem even faster.


So they all have that much in common. From here, things begin to diverge. NeXT motherboards can come in two kinds of boxes, the familiar cube or a "pizza box" about the same dimensions as a SparcStation.


The NeXTcube has room for 3 large expansion boards as well as a stack of drives which can include multiple floppy disks, hard disks, and a CD-ROM drive. The cube will also accommodate original floptical drive.Though hardly the OmniDisk it was once purported to be, it is, with a double-sided capacity of 512 megabytes and average seek rate of 92 ms, the greatest backup device in existence. Furthermore, if your hard disk should fail, the floptical will serve quite well until you get it fixed. Try that with a tape drive. The cube also supports 8 mb to 64 mb of on-board RAM. Finally, the cube is the future home of the NeXTdimension color graphics and video board, of which more in a moment.


The NeXTstation comes in two flavors, color and gray-scale. There are no expansion ports, and upgrading a regular NeXTstation to color would require a whole new motherboard. So you'd better decide before you buy. Of whichever sort, the NeXTstation has room for a floppy drive and one hard disk, which can be (and, in a stand- alone configuration, had better be) as large as 400 megs. (You can also hang a bigger external drive off the SCSI port if need be.) It has room for 32 megs of RAM. The color version comes with a minimum of 12 megabytes.


The NeXTstation packs an amazing amount into its 12 pound box, but the 105 meg hard disk wouldn't suffice outside of a network. The operating system alone takes most of that. It is what the name implies...a workstation. Not quite diskless, but close enough.


On the other hand, a color NeXTstation with a large hard drive and, say, 24 megabytes of memory comes close, all by itself, to being all the computer anyone will ever need. Even without a graphics co-processor, it handles all the 4096 colors which 16 bits will get you with little or no noticeable sacrifice in screen speed. The NeXT color monitors come in 17" or 21". At 92 dpi, the 17" screen produces as sharp and rich a display I've seen on anything that sits on a desk.


I haven't seen the 21" screen, but I assume that it's of similar quality. Interestingly, the 21" screen does not provide a larger screen area, � la Macintosh. Instead, it blows the same image up to a larger size. A 21" screen displays documents in about their actual printed size rather than 3/4 scale, which is the somewhat lamentable case with the 17" display.


About the best reason for buying a cube instead of a pizza box is the recently-shipped NeXTdimension board. This is a 32-bit accelerated graphics and video board which pretty well defines state-of-the-art. (Actually, it only uses 24 bits for color, producing the usual 16.7 million shades. The additional 8 bits are used for things like image transparency and other cool effects.)


The NeXTdimension board uses an Intel i860 to juice up its graphics speed. I have watched a NeXTdimension board do both color graphics and uncompressed video and it is astonishing on both counts. Despite the color density, screen changes and refreshes occur even faster than they do on a standard gray-scale system. Video images can come from a combination of sources including VCR's, laserdisks, and camcorders in either PAL or NTSC formats.


When it was announced, the board was supposed to have full- screen, real-time, disk-based video compression and decompression using the C-Cubed JPEG chip. Through no fault of their own, NeXT is shipping the board with an empty socket where the compression chip should be. C-Cubed was unable to produce a volume of working chips on schedule. Or, as Jobs put it, "They blew it."


This may be as well. It appears, on the strength of his speech at Digital World in LA this month, Jobs is now more interested in a chip which provides MPEG or perhaps a number of different user- configurable compression schemes. Given the turbulent state of compression standards, NeXT should probably wait a bit before filling that socket.


I hope they don't wait too long though. I have this weird longing to send video postcards over the Net. NeXTmail could easily provide that ability as soon as the compression chip is available.


Last on the hardware list is the printer, basically a bare Canon laser engine in a little black box. The image processing has largely been done by the time electrons hit the MegaPixel display, so there's little need for a processor or memory in the printer. Even without its own processor, I find myself putting to paper complex PostScript documents, at a resolution of 400 dpi, about 5 times faster than the same image, at 300 dpi, will emerge from my LaserWriter NTX.


I didn't want to get into prices just yet, but, to give you a sense of what a deal a NeXT is, let's just look at it as a printer. For the full street price of an NTX, a student at, say, Berkeley, could get himself a higher resolution printer with a much faster imaging rate and have a computer, disk drives, and a monitor thrown in for free!


One final note on the subject of NeXT hardware...it's almost tragically hip to look at. The company has won several design awards for all the cool which Frog Design put into its black magnesium. (Though the cube does, as John Dvorak muttered to me at the roll-out, look little like a chic Milanese space heater...) This beauty is more than skin deep. Everything from the circuit board layout to the styrofoam in the packing boxes has been deee- dammit-designed and built with such maniacal attention to detail that you worry for the long term sanity of these people. If Porsche made computers, they'd build them this well, but they wouldn't look this cool.


Prices

They sure don't price them like Porsches. It's amazing how inexpensive a great computer can be when a rich man's pride is on the line. You get the feeling that, in a very real sense, Steve is paying us to take these computers off his hands. I just can't imagine how NeXT could be, at these prices, making a profit on each machine. If they are, then Apple is doing something obscene.


It's a little hard to approach the discussion of price, since everything is so flexible. Quoting list seems be silly, since, as far as I can tell, it would take a special fool to pay list for a NeXT product. The community is filled with students, developers, and other insiders with the ability to make you a special price. (Even the academic prices vary from institution to institution, on what basis I don't know.)


A bare-bones NeXTstation with monitor lists for $5000. "Bare bones" hardly seems the right phrase in this context since that includes the fastest non-RISC motherboard on the market, 8 megabytes of memory, 105 megabytes of hard disk storage, a million pixel gray-scale monitor, and more software than most people ever use. I don't think you have to be all that resourceful to find one for $3500.


The printer lists for $1800. They can be had for $1400. It is the best black and white printer available for under $10,000. Period.


About the most you could pay for a NeXT would probably be around $35,000. But that would get you a NeXTcube with 2.8 gigabytes of disk storage, 64 megabytes of RAM, a floptical drive, and a 21" 32- bit color monitor with full real time video editing capacity. I defy you to put together a system of similar majesty for less than $70,000. (Though comparisons, especially to Macintosh equipment, are invidious. It's apples and Buicks, as they say, owing to the absence of anything else on the market with the NeXT's unique set of features.)


I scrounged my own system together. This included taking advantage of Businessland's fire sale on original NeXTcubes (which could then be upgraded quite inexpensively). Without herniating my resourcefulness, I was able to come up with a system which includes: an '040 NeXTcube with 24 megabytes of memory, a 660 megabyte hard disk, a floptical disk, a floppy drive, fax modem, printer, and a MegaPixel Display. My total? Less than $8000.


Michael Dell would blush at these prices. Hell, Crazy Eddie would blush at these prices. They're goin' craaazy with values down at NeXT in beautiful Redwood City, folks...


So, why aren't people buying these things by the trainload? I'll get to that, but, first, let me rave on some more.


Software (Bundled)

I suppose the most important thing to know about a NeXT is that it really is a UNIX machine. And that is a wonderful thing. Especially if you have spent years on a Macintosh which would, in the normal course of events, crash irretrievably at least twice a day. Or twenty times if you were in a big hurry. The Macintosh style of memory management is like the social order in the open ward at an asylum. One patient twists off deep and they all begin to howl. So crashes happen. A lot. UNIX keeps each inmate in his own padded cell. No matter how berserk a single program might become, the madness doesn't spread.


UNIX also means that true multi-tasking is possible. Multi- tasking, I used to think, was something that Bill Gates wanted us to hunger for so he could sell us OS/2. I figured that if I could print and download in the background, Multifinder already gave me all the multi-tasking I could ever want. Very wrong. But, like many things, you've got to have it to know how wonderful it is. Just the ability to back up one's hard disk while working uninterrupted on other chores brings a pleasure I can't describe.


Actually, the NeXT is not just UNIX. The heart of the matter is a much more efficient kernel called Mach. Mach was developed for supercomputers by NeXT's Director of Operating Systems Software, Avie Tevanian, when, not so long ago, he was a student at Carnegie Mellon. The significant thing about Mach, aside from its guerrilla efficiency, is that it will scale easily into the multi-processor future for which it was written. Like many other aspects of NeXT design, Mach is something to grow into.


But that's thrilling mostly for techies. More relevant is how NeXT UNIX feels to us "mere mortals," as they like to call us down in Redwood City. It feels good. Well...it doesn't feel bad anyway.


I have been thinking hard about UNIX ever since I realized that it was the genetic code of my favorite non-human organism: The Net. Then in Budapest last fall I heard Bill Joy give a speech called World Peace Through UNIX which was one of either the craziest or most visionary things I ever heard. He really got me going. Suddenly, I wanted some of this UNIX for myself. But I'm too old to become a UNIX weenie. What I needed was UNIX with training wheels.


And that's precisely what a NeXT is. UNIX with training wheels by Pininfarina. Any time you want to do something really ugly, like sed or chown or awk, the Berkeley dialect is right there to do it in. But, unless you're setting up a UUCP connection or some other austere chore, you rarely have to do such heavy lifting.


NeXTstep 2.0 is now more than just elegant-looking. It has depth, integration, and intuitive obviousness. It is, I think, the realized shape of things to come elsewhere. It's not quite perfect though, and the areas where it's not are so glaringly wrong in context that it's kind of like having an incredibly beautiful girlfriend who picks her nose in public.


Of the things that bug me, the worst is what seems to be a forced doctrinal dependency on the mouse when using NeXTstep. Perhaps it's an over-reaction to the mouselessness of UNIX. I don't want to reach for that thing unless I'm confused about the commands, performing some graphical chore, or moving across a large expanse of text. Too often, NeXTstep doesn't give me a choice. This machine desperately needs a good macro program (like QuickKeys).


There are some other real irritants, like the fact that there is no menu to cycle through the many programs one might have running concurrently. It's easy enough to forget something is already loaded and load it a second (or even, fifth) time. The Dock, a place to store the icons of frequently used programs, takes up too much of the screen, doesn't have room for enough programs, and doesn't accommodate a menu whereby one might load a particular document when launching a program. There is no good way to find files. If you've become addicted to OnLocation for the Mac, as I have, this can be very frustrating. Especially with a 660 megabyte hard disk.


My final major complaint is that the NeXT is WYSIALSWYG (What You See Is A Lot Smaller Than What You Get). At the crystalline resolution of 92 dpi, the screen image of a document is about 3/4 actual size. This means that text typed in 10 or 12 points is illegible at any safe distance from the monitor. The various word processors all have the option of displaying the document at 125% or 150%, but you have to ask for it every time, which is annoying. NeXT should make document scale universally adjustable from the Preferences program.


There are other aspects of the interface which haven't settled into cultural permanence yet, and NeXT doesn't seem to be ready to enforce some kind of interface fascism. So not everything is as predictable as I'd like it to be. But, generally, if a command works on a Mac, it will work on a NeXT. Where the NeXT action differs in its result, it's usually an improvement. For example, clicking in the middle of the scroll bar moves the slider to that point in the document rather than simply paging forward.


Generally, to complain about NeXTstep's short-comings makes me feel like an ingrate. Whatever its warts, this an environment to which others can only aspire. Microsoft's much ballyhooed Object Linking and Embedding strongly resembles the foundations of NeXTstep's object-oriented design, in which everything fits quite snugly into everything else. Just about all of the vaunted virtues of System 7.0, virtual memory, scalable screen fonts, multiple programs, invisible network distribution, interapplication communication, etc. are here in a much more advanced and elegant form. And Sun machines are, well, just UNIX.


In addition to NeXTstep, the NeXT comes with a good percentage of all the software you'd ever need. Here's a somewhat truncated list:


NeXTmail. I think my most compelling reason for buying a NeXT was its prodigious capacity as a Cyberspace cruiser. I live in e- mail, sometimes getting as many as a 100 messages a day. But the stuff is thin. Trying to assemble a human being from ascii requires an act of creation on my end in which reality usually suffers.


I want fatter bandwidth, and NeXTmail certainly provides that. It's wonderful! No longer is one stuck in the austere province of text. One's messages can be as ornately formatted as aesthetics permit and easily include graphics, voice (and other sounds), binary files, and, soon, video. The enhanced sense of visual communication is dramatic. Unfortunately, one can only exchange NeXTMail with other NeXTs, so it's a little like having a great operatic voice in the Country of the Deaf. (Of course, this strongly motivates one to communicate with other NeXT-oids, which will help bind this already strong community.)


There are a few things about NeXTmail I want to see improved, mostly through the addition of more keyboard commands and improved search facilities for text strings occurring within messages. But one of the great things about the NeXT is that the platform is still so malleable that any user can e-mail the company and put himself in a position to help change the things he doesn't like.


WriteNow. This is pretty much the same word processor it is on the Mac...just a lot faster. It has always seemed a little light on features to me, but I know professional writers for whom it does everything they want it to.


Digital Webster and Thesaurus. Forget every other online dictionary you've ever seen. This is the real thing. Even has pictures. Furthermore, you can highlight a word in any NeXT application and hit Command-= and you will instantaneously get its official Webster definition, pronunciation, etymology, and other synonymous words.


Digital Librarian. Drag any file or folder into Digital Librarian's bookshelf and it will create an index of every word in it. You can then search online documentation (NeXT includes all of its own docs as well as all of man UNIX), your own personal files, the complete works of William Shakespeare (also bundled), or anything else you care to have available. It will find anything you want in a New York second.


Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Somewhat related to Digital Librarian, this can search by word, phrase, or author. Works extremely well, though I found its contents to be rather too British for my tastes. America is under-represented as is anything which hasn't yet achieved classical status.


Terminal. A standard VT100 terminal emulator, this is the window within which the NeXT looks like any other UNIX machine. A scrolling C Shell at minimum, it can also perform most of the functions of communications software for logging into other systems.


Mathematica. Buy a Sun and this will cost you several thousand bucks. Buy a NeXT and get it free. I'm not a mathematician, but if this program had been around when I was going to college, I would be one.


TEX. Probably named after the macho dude who wrote it. This is page layout and document processing for real men. Incredibly rich and capable. Also incredibly difficult.


FaxReader. The NeXT is the first computer I've ever seen which makes a fax modem worth owning. It is most proficient at generating faxes (which it does at the right dot density for good reproduction), sending them, receiving them, and printing them out on real paper (as opposed to that weird stuff most fax machines spew). I've never had much success generating hard copies of faxes received by my Mac. The NTX usually takes about 10 minutes a page, though often as not, it gets bombed by a PostScript error before it ever prints. This hasn't happened yet with the NeXT. They print right away and every time. The best thing about faxing with the NeXT is that it can do all the page imaging in the background, rather than seizing the entire computer for the eternity this usually takes.


Preview. Allows you to view any PostScript file.


Icon. Allows you to view, alter, and create TIFF files.


Developer Tools. The NeXT is such an easy machine to write software for that the fact there isn't more of it indicates to me that cost of marketing is a far bigger factor than actually making the stuff. Aside from selling a lot more machines and increasing the market size, there isn't much NeXT can do about the notion that NeXT software doesn't pay. But they do certainly provide plenty of tools. These include:


Edit, etc. Edit is the ultimate programmer's editor, EMACS from heaven. It will edit and perform powerful search, replace, and formatting functions on any text or RTF file. If you're hide-bound in your habits, though, NeXT also comes with EMACS, vi, ex, ed and the usual nasty UNIX editors. With Edit on board, I can't imagine why you'd want to use one of them though, unless you were logging into to your NeXT from the outside.


Interface Builder. Stick a beautiful face and elegant handles on your code in minutes.


Compilers. C, Objective-C, and C++ compilers come with the machine.


Debuggers. Richard Stallman's famous GNU debugger, BUG-56 Debugger (from Ariel), Malloc Debugger, and AppInspector.


Tools. There is a whole Snap-On truckload of tool boxes for working on sound, music, PostScript, and other binary items which an end user like me can scarcely imagine. Whatever you were trying to build, you'd probably be well-equipped.


And finally... The NeXT comes with a folder stuffed full of cool demo programs, including a great flight simulator, a master chess game, Mandelbrot generator, neural net builders, file transfer software, a public key encryptor, etc, etc. There is also the full range of network administration tools, dressed up for ease of use (as if sysops cared).



The Company

Rather as you might expect, the company is a little eccentric. My first sense of the place was that they were all playing grown-up down there, but as I plumbed the depths of NeXT's humorlessness, it started to feel more like what you'd get if the aliens landed, wanted to assume human form, and had nothing to go on but Gentlemen's Quarterly and ArtNews. In other words, pod people by Armani.


But you can't argue with results. They could be aliens and undisguised at that. I wouldn't care. Whatever it takes for such a small organization to produce something so complex and yet so paradigm-warpingly great. The real question is whether they have a clue as to how to sell these marvelous things. There is plenty of evidence that they don't.


First they said they were going to sell them exclusively to college students. Then they said they were going to sell them to civilians, but only through the soon-to-be-deservedly-bankrupt Businessland. Now there appears to be almost no coherent sales program at all save the one which serves NeXT developers.


My sense of despair over the ability of NeXT to market its product properly grew during a conversation with a highly placed marketroid whose smooth-mouthed corporatisms were like a monument to Lack of Candor. This fellow's previous experience in the sober world of established computing had hardly prepared him to sell a machine so great that it makes people suspicious.


If they had a lick of sense, they really would take a page out of Michael Dell's, or, for that matter, Sun's, book and sell them over the phone. That's how I bought mine from Businessland and those folks were even more clueless about what they were selling than the NeXT marketroid.


I suspect the reason they don't want to sell direct is concern over supporting a machine which is too powerful to be completely self- documenting. Or, worse, it could be Son of Apple Customer "Service." I guess the apple don't fall far from the tree, but some mistakes should not be made twice. And trusting Businessland to provide service on the NeXT is malignantly ill-advised.


After I bought mine, I started to scale the precipitous learning curve of a real UNIX box and immediately hit an overhang. I called NeXT for support. Where had I bought my machine? Businessland. Alright, call Businessland then. So I did and was told that before they would support me, I would have to pay them $1000!


"Whoa," I said, "Let me sample your wares before I plunk down that kind of money. If you can answer the questions I've got now, I might buy your support contract." After much negotiation, they agreed to this. Good thing I asked. They couldn't answer a single one. Indeed, the person I talked to seemed to know less about the machine than I did in my second day of owning it.


Then I had a moment of grace. I discovered BaNG (Bay Area NeXT Group) and its guiding Samaritans: Rick Reynolds, Robert Nielsen, and Dan Kehoe. Over the next month, I must have called these guys twenty times. And they were consistently helpful.


But I soon ran into problems even they couldn't solve. So I took another run at NeXT support, resolved to perform whatever manipulative acts of social engineering were necessary to get me through. I had to be shameless. It's easier to get an afternoon in the country with the Madonna.


But when I got through, I encountered the best support staff I've ever dealt with! These people are wonderful. Without exception, they are patient, resourceful, and very, very smart. They even seem to have a sense of humor. They go at my every problem as though the fate of nations hangs in the balance and don't quit until it's solved. And they appear to love both their company and their product with religious enthusiasm.


NeXT's support staff could be its ultimate secret weapon. If NeXT sold direct and offered everyone who owns one the kind of support I've received, they would be bigger than Sun in three years. Look at WordPerfect. I think that WordPerfect for the PC is almost unusably difficult and yet it's the most popular software in the world. Why? Support. NeXT has the capacity to equal the Saints from Orem in the quality of their support. They should do it.


But of course a large burst of demand for NeXTs (such as I am so dedicated to whipping up) could create other problems for the company. One of the consequences of wanting to be on the bleeding edge of technology is that the market can change much faster than any but the most supple organization.


Despite the awesome productive capacity of their Robot Factory, NeXT is already in an administrative scramble to meet the increased orders (more than half of them international) which have hit them since the first of the year. I know people who have been waiting for 68040 upgrade boards for 4 months. I keep thinking about something Jobs said at the first NeXT intro: "More companies die of indigestion than starvation."


The Culture

Another reason to buy a NeXT is to experience the kind of community coziness and excitement which hasn't been seen around the Macintosh since about 1987. This culture is incredibly turned- on. Most of its adherents are young, smart, slick, and fashionable. In short, everything that I am not. Nevertheless, they seem not to mind having me around. Indeed, it also seems a very tolerant and inclusive culture. Maybe it's the color of the box, but the NeXT is the only computer I know where a significant number of the key developers are black.


Because of the ease with which one can create NeXTware, it seems to be developing a tribe of one or two person outfits who are turning out major programs, which, in their quality, ease of use and general robustness, ought to embarrass the industrial giants like Lotus and WordPerfect who are also developing for the NeXT.


Furthermore, because of the object-oriented nature of the environment, I can imagine a proliferation of little and precisely purposeful soft objects being distributed by NeXTmail and paid for either electronically or in kind. Once there is a critical mass of machines out there, I believe things will happen much faster here than they did with the Mac. Right now, the NeXT is about two years ahead of its competition. I think that between the quality of its developers, the ease with which they can both create and distribute their products, the incredible support they get from NeXT's developer "advocates", and feverish state of their enthusiasm, NeXT software will sprint even further ahead.


Himself

Probably not since the Tucker automobile has a machine been so thoroughly identified with a single human being as this one is. It is not possible to think of NeXT without thinking of Steven Paul Jobs, which is, in some respects a blessing, but in larger part a curse. It is the only reason I can think of that these things are not selling like pet rocks at Christmas.


Bad-mouthing Steve Jobs is not quite as popular an indoor sport as bad-mouthing Bill Gates, but you can be certain it would be if Jobs were worth anything like two billion dollars. Partly as a result of jealousy, and perhaps for better reasons too, most people in computing neither trust nor like him. He's hardly the first great visionary to suffer PR trouble, but there is something quite visceral about the reactions, pro or con, which he engenders.


In the wake of his dazzling demo, I said to him, "The only problem you've got now is getting people to believe in this thing." Or you, I might have added. "Yeah. That's our problem," he said, somewhat wistfully.


And it is. I have had people who are extremely well informed and situated swear to me that the new NeXT is, like its predecessor, mostly just show. They claim that NeXTstep 2.0 is fragile (it assuredly is not), that the '040 is still too buggy for general use (mine certainly isn't) and that the company won't make it anyway, so, even if the NeXT were insanely great, it would still be a black elephant.


I think NeXT will make it if there's an ounce of justice in the world. The company has earned success on the merits of its product, and, more to the point, so has Steve Jobs.


He may not be the world's greatest marketer. If he thought he was, he would never have hired John Sculley. But an unwillingness to focus his considerable intelligence on the dreary science of marketing is something I find it hard to fault him for. And I think there is a lot of long-term merit to what appears to be his guiding principal: If I Build It (Right), They Will Come.


He may also do a lot to destroy his own credibility. His enthusiasm for the first NeXT ran to a degree of over-billing rarely seen since the boy who cried wolf. His more recent claim of a 50% share in the "personal workstation" market is a further case in point. Figures don't lie, but this was a fairly transparent case of defining the terrain so you'll look big on it. As Guy Kawasaki said, "Why, if NeXT defined a market for black personal workstations, they could claim a 100% market share."


But to say he can't manage people...or that the computer they make for him is nothing but smoke and mirrors...is simply wrong. There is no one in this business (or perhaps any other) who can make a team burn with his own crazy sense of mission quite like Steve Jobs. And if you don't believe that, spent a day with a well- equipped NeXT and behold what a few people can do in a very short time if they've got the right mad hero charging along in the lead.


It's insanely great.



NeXT Month: The State of NeXT Software. Among the most damaging misconceptions about the NeXT is notion that there is too little software for it. NeXT month I will put the lie to that, with mini-reviews of some of the powerful, diverse, and, in many cases, unique programs presently or soon to be available.