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Reprinted from Byte, issue 13/1988, pp. 6.

The NeXT cube bears some startling resemblances to an earlier innovative machine Steve Jobs once produced

Remember Apple’s Lisa? We have one in our Lab, where it sits like a living fossil: a robust proto-Mac that has been superseded by its more gracile descendants.

It was a marvel of its day, embodying the characteristics that would evolve into today’s smaller, faster, cheaper Macintoshes. And its influence has spread far into the non-Mac world: Windows, Presentation Manager, Open Look, Intuition, and other graphical environments all owe some debt to Lisa and the Mac.

Yet the Lisa itself was something of a commercial flop. It was too expensive ever to achieve the kind of critical mass needed to come into wide use, and it didn’t cost enough to allow Apple to continue making it in relatively small quantities.

Now consider the NeXT computer. With powerful and innovative hardware coupled with an effortless user interface and perhaps the easiest-ever serious programming environment, it’s a technological gem.

And the cube already is having an impact beyond its immediate venue. For example, IBM has licensed NextStep – the cube’s Window Server, Application Kit, Display PostScript, and Workspace environment – so it’s a safe bet that a NeXT-like environment will eventually show up on reduced-instruction-set computers and Intel-based machines bearing IBM’s brand. Naturally, the clones will follow.

But the cube may also carry with it the same problem that proved the death of Lisa: It’s simultaneously very expensive for a personal computer, yet possibly too inexpensive to survive as a low-volume specialty device.

Yes, it’s true that several “mainstream” personal computers cost as much or even more than the NeXT cube does, but they have wide acceptance; they’re proven, stable designs; they can be configured in endless variations and can run literally thousands of applications (as announced, there’s not even a good way to load new software into the cube, except via the network connector in the back); and so on. The cube, being brand new, can counter these established strengths only with its bright promise.

The promise might be enough, especially given that the machine is targeted at some of the best, brightest, and most enthusiastic early adopters of new computer technology: students. But even here, reality adds its grain of salt: A cube costs as much as a semester at MIT. How many students can afford that?

A comment written by Mark Welch (a participant in BIX’s NeXT conference) said it very well: “What type of student, exactly, is the NeXT cube aimed at?

“I assume engineering and computer science students would drool over this [computer]... But the students I know (the science types) are struggling really hard, or taking out the maximum $2500 student loan to buy a Mac with enough goodies to make it usable. How, and why, would those students afford a NeXT system?

“I assume I am not one of the target students (I am a law student, and about 50 percent or more of law students own PClones running WordPerfect, with a good 10 percent using Macs and Microsoft Word or WriteNow or some such).

“Surely I am not in their target financial market, given my poverty level. (Q: I wonder if the $6500 price tag of a NeXT workstation is above or below the average [annual] income of a university student?)

“I do question, rather substantially, any theory that a student could buy a $6500 computer, even over 4 years.”

As I write this, less than a week after the formal announcement of the NeXT machine, lots of people are questioning it. Of course, the universities themselves might foot the bill, hiding the costs in the form of increased tuition, or maybe finding a way for benefactors to at least partially pick up the tab. But even here there’s a snag: Remember that NeXT refuses to sell to anyone other than universities. Would you donate to your alma mater’s computer fund, knowing that the money would go to buy computers that deliberately will be prevented from being used in the wider world outside academia?

Something here doesn’t add up. To me, it looks as though a portion of Steve Jobs’s history is going to replay itself. In the not-too-distant future, I think we’ll see a less-expensive, equally capable NeXT machine that will be available outside academia. This machine will be to the cube as the Mac is to the Lisa.

None of this is to suggest that we should write off the cube, or NeXT. The cube already is a technological success that will have far-reaching implications, no matter what happens in the marketplace. As such, it’s a bellwether of computer technology that bears close scrutiny. And within one niche market – wealthy students and/or the best-endowed universities – it may also be a commercial success.

Actually, I hope it does succeed, because we all benefit from innovation, and the cube – like the Lisa before it – is truly innovative.

But as for getting and using one, well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until NeXT or someone else produces a cube for, er, the rest of us.

Fred Langa
Editor in Chief
(BIXname “flanga”)

Page added on 22nd January 2005.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.