NeXT Step

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After being asked to leave Apple during the reign of John Sculley, Steve Jobs went on to create the NeXTStep operating system. Ten years later, it was this OS system that saved Apple Corporation and ensured their dominance in the computer market.

NeXTStep is one of countless possible examples in the field of new media which forces us to reconsider what constitutes obsolescence. Like all new media, NexTStep was numerically encoded, modular in structure and infinitely variable (could exist in countless versions and iterations of itself) - all of which call into question whether we might be able to articulate the attributes of new media which die and which are preserved when software is cannibalized in the process of creating new software.

This process is hardly exclusive to the realm of new media and can be observed in any do-it-yourself attempts to construct machines and media from pre-existing parts. It is entirely common for customized cars to utilize the bodies of older models with the engines of newer models – and few media new or old are excluded from such practices. Yet what makes NeXTStep, computer software, and other new media an exceptional case is that numerical code can be directly inserted into new programs and take on a new identity when divorced from its original context – and this attribute of programming, that the labor of writing a line of code can be endlessly recycled, forces us to consider how the citational possibilities inherent in writing take on new qualities in new media.

When consider the relationship of a medium's "guts" to its potential black box, software becomes an especially proglematic artifact because it consists of multiple layers of translation, from 1's and 0's to the programming language built on top, to the discrete objects that establish its foundation. If an end-user is left only to interact with a programmed interface it would follow that software is entirely black box.

Such a distinction is of crucial importance in dealing with software which can exist in multiple forms versions and upgrades - forcing us to question at what point is a piece of software an amalgamation of discrete codes, and at what point can an older piece of software be said to be obsolesced by a new version. NeXTSTep established a metastructure for an operating system that allowed it to be changed without the need for complete re-writing, yet it survives as that structure for the MacOS today. When did it cease to be NeXTStep and do the objects that make up a program take on a new identity when cited in newer programs?

Brief History

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Steve Jobs

Though Steve Jobs had made it to the top by 1983, he had little interest in running Apple. Instead, he brought in John Sculley, an executive at Pepsi, to be the CEO of the company. Only a few years later however, a power struggle broke out between the two and “Jobs was out, fired by Sculley in late 1985. … He dumped all his stock – less than a single share – and, a few months later, started a company called NeXT” (Kaplan 105).

Steve’s NeXT Step

Upon being fired, Jobs went on to create the NeXT computer which was released in 1989 in San Francisco. Nicknamed as “the black box,” the computer ran on a operating system named NeXTStep. The NeXTStep was an “object-oriented technology that Apple’s Pink engineers were just starting to develop” (Carlton 409). The system was innovative in its utilization of “reusable ‘chunks’ of software code that could be used to build a more versatile and adaptable operating system. Instead of having to perform major surgery on the operating system each time it needed upgrading, the reusable chunks of code could be swapped out at will” (Carlton 409).

“Plan A instead of Plan B”

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Jobs makes his return at Macworld 1997

About a decade after firing Steve Jobs, Apple began to lose momentum as it became imperative to find a new operating system. As Microsoft was steadily becoming stronger, Apple frantically started searching for alternatives to calm their customers, as well as their software developers. Gilbert Amelio, a CEO at Apple, “promised to unveil a new software strategy on Jan. 7, at the MacWorld trade show in San Francisco” (Burrows). Amelio and his team began to look into Solaris by Sun, Windows NT by Microsoft and considered merging with Be Inc. Apple continued its search for a system in a frenzy, with the five basic requirements being “memory protection, preemptive multitasking, multimedia, ease of use, and ability to access the Internet” (Carlton 411). Ellen Hancock, an important figure at Apple stated, “When we did our numerical scoring, NeXT came out the highest” (Carlton 411). Amelio ended Apple’s struggle through buying the NeXT system and software, saying “I can boil it down to: we picked Plan A instead of Plan B” (Carlton 412). NeXT was bought from Steve Jobs for a final transaction price of $430 million (Carlton 412).

Critical Techniques

“The Cube”

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The NeXT cube by itself
The NeXT computer was distinctive in its shape; standing at one foot in every direction and weighing 12 pounds, it was shortly after nicknamed “the cube.”

The shape and system of the cube later proved to be problematic. Of the cube Gates stated, “He put a microprocessor in a box. So what?” (Stross 72). While the cube was easily recognizable because of its shape, it was essentially unnecessary at the material level. In the end however, it is clear that “Jobs’s return was far more than symbolic” (Kaplan 106), and his distinctive black cube helped contain the operating system that was critical in his return to Apple.

A (Semi-) Analog System in a Digital World

“Jobs refused to include a standard floppy drive into the machine” (Carlton 410), and thus consumers were less likely to buy them because it was necessary at the time to swap between floppy disks to keep up with the exponential increase of applications. This resulted in a lack of applications written for NeXT, “resulting in Jobs being able to sell only about fifty thousand of the machines before pulling out of the hardware market in 1993 to concentrate on the NeXTStep software. But by then, NeXT had lost momentum” (Carlton 410). The bad choice in both shape and design led to critical comments from competition, with Bill Gates and Scott McNealy saying such things as “Develop for it? I’ll piss on it” and “it’s the wrong operating system, the wrong processor, and the wrong price” (Stross 72).

Naming Nonsense

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The NeXT brand logo
Unnecessarily complicated was the process by which the products were categorized and labeled. Though the company name “NeXT” was consistently written with a lowercase “e, ” the products are more confusing and tricky. In a publication titled “The Merger,” Engel breaks them all down:

NeXTstep: the name of theparts without the operating system;

NeXTStep: the name of the entire system (the operating system, various parts, applications, etc.), sometimes even referring to an inclusion of the cube;

NeXTSTEP: the entire software package;

NEXTSTEP: no longer associated with the company NeXT, NEXTSTEP was now sold in conjunction with different hardwares (i.e. NEXTSTEP/NeXT Computers (black), NEXTSTEP/Intel (white), etc.) (Engel).

Though the words next and step are conjoined and capitalized in various fashions, they are nonetheless necessary at the semiotic level in order to help differentiate between the different features and systems. And while the similar names make it difficult to distinguish, those who are familiar with NeXT know the ins and outs of these labels as they carry big distinctions. This confusion carries on to the direct remediation of the NeXTStep software, named OpenStep. OpenStep bares the various names of: OpenStep, OPENSTEP, OpenStep for Solaris and OPENSTEP for Windows (Engel).

Object-oriented Technology

The purpose of utilizing object-oriented technology was its malleability. Object-oriented technology was advantageous for “Instead of having to perform major surgery on the operating system each time it needed upgrading, the reusable chunks of code could be swapped out at will” (Carlton 409). This ultimately “would make it far easier, faster, and cheaper to keep the operating system spiffy and new” (Carlton 409), a crucial aspect of encoding and decoding messages.

Object-oriented programming has existed since the 1960's and has enabled programs to be split into discrete units where code can be reused alongside other, modular, interchangeable "objects." It has been a crucial development in realizing ambitious programs without having to acquire the resources to start from zero with every project. In one sense, object-oriented programming could be understood function much like citation in writing -

Before and After What Came NeXT

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The Apple II

Before Steve Jobs started NeXT, he and Steve “Woz” Wozniak “turned the Jobs family’s garage into a workshop and set out to build a personal computer” (Munarriz). A year later, they emerged from the garage with the Apple I; “Despite its limitations (the computer had all of 4k of memory) it became one of the first personal computers to be mass-produced” (Munarriz). The Apple II was released shortly after, the target audience being schools and school children instead. Interestingly enough, the design of these two systems bear a particular resemblance to the typewriter. At this time, even the Apple systems were digital, they were still one solid and chunky piece of technology that resembled what came historically before.

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The NeXT computer and monitor
It was not until the Macintosh that the keyboard separated itself from the screen. But this hardware set up that was characteristic of the Macintosh is what is continuously remediated to this day. At the end of the day, with the return of Jobs to Apple, “The heart of the new Apple was the iMac, a futuristic-looking computer-and-monitor-in-one, as brilliantly marketed and packaged as anything Jobs had done in his youth” (Kaplan 107). Since Jobs’ triumphant return to Apple, the “renaissance” that Apple is undergoing has been entirely successful to even include the recent release of the iPhone. The iPhone further condenses a personal computer into a hand held system that deviates greatly from the historic typewriter or printing press. These remediations are all media that are readily available for anyone with basic computer knowledge to read and write in, though the NeXT computer and Apples I and II require a little more knowledge.

In regards to the NeXTStep software, it was remediated in conjunction with Sun to be known as OpenStep, software that could make use of another operating system as its core. The original primarily functions in a similar manner as NeXTStep, with versions for Solaris and Windows NT as well.

Works Cited

  • Burrows, Peter "How Apple Took Its NeXT Step." BusinessWeek Archives. (1997).
  • Carlton, Jim Apple. The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders. (New York: Random House, 1997).
  • Engel, Tomi "OpenStep Confusion." TheMerger. (2000).
  • Kaplan, David A. The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams. (New York: William Marrow and Company, Inc., 1999).
  • Manovich, Lev "The Language of New Media." (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
  • Stross, Randall Steve Jobs & the NeXT Big Thing. (Scribner, 1993).