The NeXT big thing
posted on Jun 6, 2010
People tend to assume I'm an "Apple guy" when they see my laptop. Sometimes they even ask, in which case I'll try to correct them. I'm actually a unix  guy. But most people don't understand what that is, or where to put me on the tired old Mac/PC spectrum. Here's an informative diagram that might help :
My wife hates it when I grow a beard, and I don't wear suspenders, so I really only have the smug expression and condescending attitude to go on. I suppose that makes it understandable that I could be mistaken for an insufferable Mac fanboy , but it's purely coincidental. I'm often annoyed by the Apple Way. I haven't really been an Apple fan since the Apple ][, and up until about 10 years ago I was in general agreement with the Mac haters, that Macs were overpriced, technically substandard toys.
But then something happened. As Apple Computer was entering its death spiral, there was a coup, and a little outfit called NeXT snuck in and took over the company. This was a reverse takeover in the sense that Apple technically bought NeXT, but NeXT's management and technology took over Apple. Whatever the financial details, the practical result was that a cutting-edge but underperforming Unix shop took over a failing multi-billion dollar consumer electronics company, aggressively cleaned house, and proceeded to take over the world.
Few people understand the nature of the revolution that occurred with NeXT's takeover of Apple, because although NeXT dominated the future of the company, they quietly dropped the name and instead ran with the more recognizable Apple Macintosh name. This was pure branding sleight-of-hand. In fact, the Mac as the world knew it was dead—System 9 was the end of the road for the platform that Steve Jobs had launched over 15 years before.
OS X was supposedly System 10—you were even supposed to pronounce it "O-S-Ten" to support Apple's mythologizing. But in fact, 10 was not an incremental improvement over 9. It was a different species. Nobody wanted to mention it in anything but whispers, but the Mac was a mouldering corpse. Steve himself murdered it with his own hands, and then he peeled off its bloodied robes and wrapped them around his princeling, his beloved NeXT, dialed up the RDF to max, and announced the new Mac to the world. Long live the king!
And the world fell for it. The coup was a success.
The only thing really Mac-like about the new system was the fact that it came with an emulator and translation layer to run legacy Mac applications, and an API (Carbon) so that old-school developers weren't cast to the wolves. But other than that, this new machine was essentially the NeXT ][. It wasn't nearly as new as Apple wanted you to believe. The Cocoa API was basically NeXTstep 5 , and NeXTstep had been around since the 1980s, almost as long at the original Macintosh. 
I was never a NeXT user. I had become a unix guy when I was working in academia and research, and NeXT was always trying to sell into academia because that's where all the unix guys were, and they figured we would just get it. And yeah, we got it: they were sweet, slick little machines. If you could afford one, you could do nifty things like invent the World Wide Web. But frankly, they were underpowered as workstations and expensive as desktop PCs. My shop needed horsepower more than it needed slick user interfaces, so we would do weird things like buy big SGI 4D and Onyx systems, designed for cutting-edge graphics rendering, decline the graphics cards, and just hook up a 15-year-old VT100 terminal to them. The SGI salesmen were confused by this, but at least they could make a sale because their stuff was fast. The NeXT guys couldn't get that far with us. Not with many labs, in fact. They sold only 50,000 machines, ever.
But damn could they put together a user interface. They did what was considered by many to be impossible, and made unix a genuine pleasure to use. And when they took over Apple, they pulled off an even more impossible feat, and convinced everyone that unix, the cryptic beard-and-suspenders operating system, really ought to be the first choice for your grandma's computer. Almost overnight Apple changed from a failing company with an outdated operating system, to the seller of the slickest, most sophisticated unix workstations that money could buy. And a for a decent price, compared to the old NeXTcube.
Not only did NeXT-cum-Apple become the world's top seller of unix workstations, but they timed it perfectly, just as all of NeXT's rivals in the heavyweight unix market were hitting the wall. SGI, king of the slick unix workstation market, was entering its own death spiral. Digital Equipment was bought out in 1998, a year after NeXT took over Apple. Sun fell on a decade of hard times after the tech bubble collapsed, and was finally sold to Oracle. Linux was undercutting everyone. NeXT itself had stopped making hardware a few years before. Just as the commercial unix world went into crisis, NeXT deftly exited the whole market and reinvented themselves under the Apple brand.
Apple's official history does not lay things out this way, because the official history is not the history of computers, but the history of the brands, and Apple and Macintosh are two of the biggest brands in the world. Branding is all about inventing a narrative that well help you sell things, not about telling the truth. So the world heard all about the exciting "new" things that the Macintosh could do, and not a word about the daring coup of a struggling 12-year old academic operating system that co-opted the Mac brand and used it as a trojan horse to insert itself into consumers' homes.
Virtually everyone in the tech press went along with Apple's branding narrative, because it was compelling. Underdog Mac gets up from the mat after a 9-count, and against all odds, starts punching his way to victory. Wow! Great stuff. The real story from the murky and fragmented unix world was way too confusing to get any traction. But because the press happily went (and still goes) along with what is really an imaginary narrative, there are a lot of things they get wrong.
So this blog might be about the things that the blogosphere gets wrong because they are too wrapped up in their own storytelling and mythmaking. And it may also be about the things that Apple gets wrong, as the mythmaker-in-chief busy constructing its own artificial reality that is regularly at odds with its actual history and technology. It will not be about the usual Apple buzz and hype, because there are already a thousand bloggers covering that more enthusiastically than I ever could. Mostly, it will just be about my experiences as a user of the best(-kept-secret) unix workstation money can buy. If it is ever smug and condescending, it will be in a beard-and-suspenders kind of way.
- I will use capital-U Unix to refer to the official Unix brand, and small-u unix as the actual operating system technology.
- Oddly, licensing a Dilbert strip for a blog with zero unique monthly visitors costs $100, but they encourage you to embed the strip for free.
- Never met one of this fabled breed, to be honest. They might be mythical.
- NeXTstep 3.3 was released in 1995, and NeXTstep 4.0 was in beta at the time of the takeover.
- The original Mac was released in 1984, Jobs was fired in 1985, and founded NeXT almost immediately. So it was basically the anti-Mac, the grudge-Mac, the pretender to the throne, from day 1.