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NeXTSTEP in 1992: If Only We Had Known . . .

Published September 9th, 2006

nextstep 3.0If Only We Had Known . . .

Thanks to an article on the Rixstep blog (”The Object Oriented Cake“), I took the time to listen to Steve Jobs introducing NeXTSTEP 3.0 back in 1992. As Rixstep points out, in 1992 Microsoft was just introducing Windows 3.1 and was still trying to build Windows NT. The hardware it ran on was unbelievably weak. As an example, consider that it wasn’t until early 1993 that Intel introduced the Pentium, which ran at an astonishing 66mHz!
Meanwhile, in 1992 Apple had just introduced System 7 the year before, which turned out to be the last truly significant upgrade the company was to make until OS X was released in 2001. Even so, among the “innovations” in System 7 was color computing. (Can you say, “take me for granted”?) Apple had also just introduced the first Macs powered by the new RISC PowerPC chip based on their collaboration with Motorola and IBM.
In the Unix world, Solaris 2.0 was just a baby that year, FreeBSD was gestating for a 1993 birth, and Linux was still reaching for a 1.0 release.
Ponder these few moments from computing history as you watch a very youthful Steve Jobs dazzle us with the remarkable achievements of his company’s operating system, NeXT, and its new application development tool, NeXTSTEP 3.0. Truth is, NeXT was so far out there in 1992, a lot of the folks in his audience probably couldn’t believe it was real. After all, these marvels were running on hardware that was only somewhat less puny than the day’s most powerful PC’s, and some of the features he demonstrates are ones we’re still waiting for today!
It should really make you wonder what went wrong after 1992. Why don’t we have PC’s, applications, and development platforms today that fully match the power of NeXT and NeXTSTEP? Mac OS X comes close, but it’s still hobbled with remnants of the Classic MacOS. Besides, the Mac hardly represents “mainstream computing” in 2006.
I know I’m gonna get it from the “never say die!” Microsoft fans out there, but it’s clear to me that the major villain in this story is none other than the company formerly led by Bill Gates. If you want an example of why monopolies are bad for the economy and bad for consumers, just watch this 14-year-old demo of an operating system that you can’t buy anymore. When brilliant technology like this can die stillborn—and no one notices—something is definitely wrong with the marketplace for new technology.
For my own convenience, and therefore yours, I’ve split the video (previously disseminated through YouTube and Google Video) into six parts, each corresponding to one of the major themes in Jobs’ talk.

 next os and bundled apps (7:51) networking & digital librarian (5:21)

Jobs showcases new features of the OS itself, as well as a few apps built with NeXTSTEP 3.0 such as NeXT mail, Lotus Improv (spreadsheet), and WordPerfect. As Rixstep notes in their article, Improv and WordPerfect were best-of-breed apps that included features that were only possible through the richness of the NeXTSTEP platform.

This segment begins to introduce NeXT’s advanced networking features, using the NeXT Digital Librarian app to demonstrate the ease of connecting to remote computers with a variety of operating systems and easily integrating the data found into a meaningful research session. Of course, It’s Novell that he uses to connect to the Windows PC.

 networking & collaboration (5:16)

Jobs continues to describe NeXT’s networking advantages (built-in TCP-IP, for example), while demonstrating a collaborative editing project involving content from a Windows PC, a Sun workstation, and a Macintosh. Using WordPerfect, Jobs pulls all the pieces together into a company newsletter.

 object linking & built-in fax (4:24)

Remember OLE? When was the last time you OLE’d anything? The original Microsoft OLE pretty much limited you to Microsoft software, and to Windows. NeXTSTEP’s DOLE (Distributed OLE) was the whole ball of wax. Objects could be distributed across networks and platforms, and links could be continuous… without even saving the “master” document!

 interface builder & the object cake (7:33)

Now comes the really exciting part! Jobs introduces Interface Builder, the ancestor of Mac OS X’s Xcode GUI builder. Only, according to Rixcode, the version in NeXTSTEP was far superior to today’s. And the reason why is summed up in the simple metaphor Jobs offers:
  1. “Think of NeXTSTEP, which is NeXT’s object-oriented development environment, as an object oriented cake. I’m about to show you just the frosting on the cake. Many people have tried to copy this frosting, but what they found out is without the object-oriented cake underneath it just doesn’t work.”

 dos & graphics power (4:20)

Jobs concludes with a brief demo of SoftPC running DOS (you’ll find a couple of good comic moments here), and then showing off NeXTSTEP’s graphical prowess in handling transparency, compositing, 3D objects, and more. Even if you forget for a moment this is 14 years ago, you’ll probably be impressed by what Jobs can accomplish with these tools.

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