NeXTSTEP and meeting Steve jobs in 1993

Back in the early nineties I worked for an ex watch maker who later went on to help define how Java Script should work.  This fellow started a chain of events that led to a couple of presentations by Steve Jobs in 1993 and to use a web browser on NeXTStep,  long before one existed on Windows.

In 1991 I worked for a very tolerant company called Financial Infotec. We produce a big application written in C / X Windows / Motif that displayed financial figures to dealers. It was painstaking work to manage a huge code base without the help of Object Oriented techniques. (Although my boss, Jean Marc Lugrin did implement an OO framework of sorts using function pointers and C structures).

Jean Marc sent me off to New York to visit a partner business and it was in the offices of FD Consulting in Staten Island that I first saw a NeXT Cube. It’s hard to over state how cool this matt black cube looked compared to the clunky VAX servers that we were used to. On the front was an understated logo.

I learned that it ran a version of unix, the operating system that I already knew, that the user interface looked like it had been designed by an artist rather than a geek, and that it could play Pacobel in stereo. And although the main language was Objective C, this was an extension of C which we were already using.

Back at work I got back to the C and X windows programming job, but was also given the task of evaluating a NeXT work station and of porting our X Windows app to run on it. Incidentally, the word ‘app’ did not mean anything outside the NeXT community until Apple started to adopt it ten years later.

The NeXT Station was another $10,000 miracle of design, a black slab that used Postscript to render beautiful user interfaces with a wonderful framework called NeXTStep and a tool called the NeXT Interface Builder. The legacy of NeXTStep is still inside modern Mac Operating Systems in the form of the Cocoa class names that being in NS_.

Time passed and I moved on to my first contract job using NeXTStep at Swiss Bank in London. Steve Jobs had started NeXT when he left Apple in 1985 by 1993 the company was targeting their wonderful products at financial traders. This was the time when the markets for derivatives and bond instruments was exploding. A lot of the traders had maths and engineering backgrounds and needed a platform to try out their algorithms, quickly.

NeXTStep fitted the bill because of the combination of its beautiful GUI, productive GUI building tools and its foundation on conventional Unix.

So Mr Jobs came to the bank in his black turtle neck sweater he addressed an audience of fifty of us in a small conference room. Looking back I think he was wasting his time because we were already enthralled by the kit. I can’t remember what he was talking about, but I do remember the effect, he was like a circus master or a magician, conjuring enthusiasm from us 20 something techies.

No one, but no one had as much charisma as Jobs when he was on. Not George Clooney, not Bill Clinton, and certainly no one in the technology field even came close. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

NeXTStep was a joy to use but it was always a niche operating system. A problem in 1993 was that, being a Unix operating system, it needed 32Mb of memory to run and this doubled or trebled the cost of a PC. You can read more about why the brilliant NeXTStep ultimately failed in When cool was’t enough. NeXT stopped making their own cool hardware and released a version of NeXTStep that ran on Intel PCs.

A NeXT Cube used to host the whole Internet

But not before a man had invented the World Wide Web on a NeXTCube. The sticker in this picture is a note telling cleaners not to turn off the Internet “This is a server, DO NOT POWER DOWN!!”. That was the day you really could switch off the Internet in one go.

Since those days at Swiss Bank in 1993 I carried on contracting but Objective C was such a niche skill that I had to revert to C and C++ programming. The thing I missed most was the sheer beauty of NeXT machines, and how easy they were to use. It seemed as if the greatest computers ever had slipped into disuse and a lot of us were doomed to use C++ and C for a long time.

Steve Jobs was always prone to sudden changes of direction, often leaving third party developers heading in the wrong direction. That was infuriating, but I will always be grateful to him for giving us the tools to go about our working lives more happily.






About Guy Roberts