Last Wednesday, San Francisco hosted what may well go down in history as the computer industry’s biggest ever media event with all the artificiality that the term implies: of the 3,000 invited, only 260 were journalists, hand-picked for their friendliness to Steve Jobs’ company or their publication’s influ ence. NeXT planners left no room for […]
Last Wednesday, San Francisco hosted what may well go down in history as the computer industry’s biggest ever media event with all the artificiality that the term implies: of the 3,000 invited, only 260 were journalists, hand-picked for their friendliness to Steve Jobs’ company or their publication’s influ ence. NeXT planners left no room for un flattering or stray shots either verbal or visual and while all local and national tel evision news operations were invited, none could bring in video cameras. Theirs was a hand-out tape, pre-cut and packaged, for re porter voice-overs – and the audience app eared to be seeded with NeXT cheerleaders. Hesh Wiener looks be hind the media hype and tries to discern what the future holds for Jobs and for NeXT.
He’s been called everything from a genius to P C Barnum, but whatever one thinks of NeXT Inc founder and big enchilada Steve Jobs, it is clear that one is not alone. Everybody in the computer industry is thinking of Jobs, too. His carefully orchestrated press conference has renewed the industry’s drive to improve graphical user interfaces, and reinforced engineers’ urges to put more MIPS in every box. What Jobs has failed to do is to convince serious customers that he really can build a computer that sells. While Jobs may have a year or two to cultivate a market for the NeXT box, he has much less time to attract the massive amount of capital NeXT will require to succeed. The millions of dollars thus far poured into development by NeXT have only provided Jobs with a mock-up of its computer, and a portion of its software foundation. Tens of millions more will be required before NeXT is a real vendor… if Jobs and his associates can accomplish the difficult task at all. To be sure, some aspects of the NeXT advent are quite rosy.
Pittance IBM’s interest in the NeXT user interface software is a valuable endorsement. even if it’s backed only by what amounts to a pittance in IBM terms. Observers reckon that $10m or so is all it took for $60,000m IBM to get rights to NeXT’s most valuable asset: the software wool so readily pulled over the eyes of an adoring press last week. Nevertheless, IBM is unlikely to port the software to its commercial products; the company can’t even sell the majority of its users display terminals that offer all points-addressible graphics. Nor has it upgraded its key PC-DOS applications, like DisplayWrite, to use the VGA display system that it has been peddling for the past couple of years. NeXT may help corporate users lose their resistance to Unix, a possibility that could have more of an impact on the industry than most reporters covering the NeXT product promotion have thus far contemplated. Unix is more than an operating system. The vendor-independent operating system is a concept that could increase competition in the computer industry to the benefit of users and young companies and possibly to the detriment of established manufacturers that enjoy additional account control by virtue of their monopoly on systems software. But the big computer makers – IBM, DEC, and so on – are quite resistant to any standards but their own de facto ones. Only entities stronger than the big vendors, such as superpower governments, have been able to engender significant competition in the industry; Unix is a long way from being Cobol or Ada. The most bizarre aspect of the NeXT announcement is Jobs’ proclamation that his company’s workstations will be sold exclusively to universities, at least in the short term. At a time when educational institutions in the US and elsewhere can barely keep up with their host of traditional expenses, the possibility that a large body of students will get $6,500 workstations is almost funny. While there is no question that some students already use substantially more valuable hardware to develop software, analyse experimental results and simulate natural phenomena, the typical student with a computer uses the machine as a word processor or spreadsheet engine. The cost of systems for these jobs is well under $2,000 including a printer. On
e possible explanation of NeXT’s plan is that the company intends to make only a few machines at first… and lose lots of money on each one. This is unlikely to hurt – and may well help – NeXT to complete its real mission, selling a couple hundred million dollars worth of capital stock to a trusting public.
Uncritical faith In the meantime, NeXT is doubtless hoping that the cost of all the expensive components in its machine will get ever cheaper. Such uncritical faith in long-term trends is not necessarily warranted. The memory chip bubble will eventually burst, but the cost of developing, testing and supporting software is growing at a blistering pace. The price of a Canon optical disk drive is bound to fall somewhat, but the price of high-resolution displays with their primitive and expensive glass envelopes is likely to rise, particulary in US dollar terms, as the peasantry now toiling for pennies in third world glass works learns to read, strike and revolt.
Should Steve Jobs beat the odds, NeXT will provide valuable inspiration to others in the computer industry and elsewhere. Even if all he does is popularise a few good ideas, he deserves the world’s gratitude. But should NeXT be unable to bail out its initial investors like Ross Perot at a tidy profit, Steve Jobs is destined to be tossed out of NeXT with even less mercy than he got at Apple. Perot, unlike the directors of profitable Apple, is as likely to sue the pants off Jobs in the event of a calamity as it is to attempt a coup should NeXT succeed beyond anyone’s imagination. There is no indication that Jobs has considered the course he seems to have taken, and no sign that he is at all prepared for what’s NeXT.