The Return of a Computer Star

By Andrew Pollack
Special to the New York Times

San Francisco -- October 12, 1988 -- Steven P. Jobs is back. The personal computer industry's boy wonder, who founded Apple Computer when he was 21 years old, today introduced the new machine on which he hopes to once again ascend to the top of the computer world. And the machine drew some rave reviews.

Mr. Jobs and his Palo Alto, Calif., company, Next Inc., have been working on the machine in great secrecy since 1985, when Mr. Jobs was ousted from Apple in a power struggle.

''I think I speak for everyone at Next saying it's great to be back,'' Mr. Jobs said. ''Together we're going to experience one of those times that is experienced only once or twice a decade in computing.''

To a hushed crowd of 3,000 at Davies Symphony Hall here, Mr. Jobs introduced the machine - a black magnesium cube housing the electronics, accompanied by an erasable optical disk storage device and a large black-and-white screen capable of displaying photographic-quality images.

Flowers and a Violinist

Mr. Jobs is known for his dramatic product introductions and he and his company took advantage of intense interest in the computer community about both him and his new machine. He stood alone on a dark stage with just the computer and a vase of flowers, a huge screen behind him, and took the new machine through its paces. He demonstrated how it could record and send voice messages, play music with the quality of a compact disk and instantly retrieve quotations from the complete works of Shakespeare stored on its optical disk.

After the two-hour demonstration, capped by a duet featuring the machine and a violinist for the San Francisco Symphony, the audience gave Mr. Jobs a standing ovation.

The machine, known as the Next Computer System, is intended primarily for use in university education and will be sold for $6,500, a price that includes the optical disk, monitor and several software programs. It also includes eight million bytes of internal memory capacity.

''My gut feeling is that it is going to have a big impact on higher education, not only by what it is, but by the signal it sends to the rest of the industry,'' said Douglas Van Houweling, vice provost for information technology at the University of Michigan.

Still, those who have been waiting so long expressed some disappointment. The machine, which already has taken a year longer to bring to market than Mr. Jobs expected, is not ready for final production. While some machines will be shipped in November to a few universities and software developers, widespread shipments will not begin until the second quarter of 1989.

And while the price is low for all those features, it is still far higher than the $3,000 that is considered the upper limit for university students. ''The machine turned out better than I expected,'' Mr. Van Houweling said. ''We wish it had been sooner and we wish it would be cheaper.''

For Universities Only

Moreover, the general public will not be able to buy the machines. They will be sold only to universities. It is considered likely that eventually the computer will be marketed to businesses and the general public as well, though for a higher price.

Mr. Jobs, now 33 years old, is hoping that by offering the power of an engineering work station with the friendliness of a personal computer, there will still be room for a new machine. But he and others say he must offer something new that no one else has.

There is a difference of opinion on whether he does. William H. Gates, chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, a major supplier of personal computer software, derided the machine, saying it has nothing truly innovative and is just ''another microprocessor in a box.'' Others seem to suggest it has flash, but that other machines might be more powerful. Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems founder and technical guru, has called it ''the first yuppie work station.''

'He's Gotten There First'

Others said that while the machine contained nothing dramatically new, it advanced the state of technology quantitatively in many areas at once and exemplified several trends. ''All the vendors are moving in that direction, but he's gotten there first,'' said Steve Christensen, a research scientist at the Supercomputer Center at the University of Illinois.

One trend exemplified by the Next machine is the move toward what is called multimedia machines. Instead of merely displaying text and graphics on the screen, such computers would be able to incorporate sound, animation and full-motion video.

The Next machine is particularly strong on sound. Users can record voice messages and send them to one another by electronic mail. Text documents on the screen can be annotated with voice commentary. And educational programs can be accompanied by voice, music and realistic sound effects.

No Color Yet

The machine does not go as far in the video area. There is no color machine as yet, though Mr. Jobs said color would be available next year. Nor can the computer display video images, like those from a videotape.

Another area in which Next is pioneering is in the use of erasable optical disks, a long-awaited technology just starting to appear on the market. The Next disk will carry 256 megabytes of information, equivalent to dozens or hundreds of books and about 10 times the capacity of many personal computer hard disks. The optical disks, which sell for about $50, are removable.

That will allow students to store personal digital libraries of reference works, musical scores or images of photographic quality. Included with the Next machine is a dictionary, thesaurus, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the complete works of Shakespeare. Software will allow particular definitions or quotations to be retrieved instantly from the disk by typing in key words.

Still, despite the advances, many analysts think Next faces an uphill battle. The education market is filled with competitors like Apple, Sun and Apollo, which are prepared to offer deep discounts to attract customers. Since Next's machine will not be available until the second quarter of next year, competitors can catch up. Sun, a major work station competitor, is expected to introduce a lower-priced machine in March.

In addition, even though the machine might be less expensive than comparably equipped Macintosh or Sun work stations, many university students and faculty members would probably prefer less functionality if they could get a lower price. But Next does not allow for a lower-cost entry- level model that is not equipped with some component, the optical disk system, for example.

Small Market Seen

By keeping its price so high, Next is confining itself to sales to faculty and to universities, which will install machines in clusters for student use. That market is far smaller than the one for students. Sun, which now leads in the work station market, has sold about 15,000 machines to American universities. That would seem to suggest that Mr. Jobs's company would do well to sell several thousand machines in its first year.

Getting enough software for the machine represents another challenge. The machine will come with some essential software - a word processing program called Write Now, developed at Next, the equation-solving program Mathematica, and a data base program from Sybase Inc. of Berkeley, Calif. There will also be Jot, a personal memo-taking program, as well as Lisp, a computer language used by researchers in artificial intelligence.

A desktop publishing program will be available separately from the Frame Technology Corporation of San Jose, Calif. Other companies, like Lotus Development and Cricket Software, indicated they would develop software for the machine.

Mr. Jobs, in an interview, said he had high ambitions for Next and hoped to be profitable soon. ''We'll have to achieve a certain scale,'' he said. ''The world doesn't need another $100 million computer company.''

Profile of a New Computer

Central Processing Unit: Motorola 68030.

Memory: Eight megabytes of random access memory.

Storage: 256-megabyte erasible optical disk.

Monitor: 17-inch monochrome, with one million pixels for high resolution.

Sound: Built-in, compact disk quality.

Voice: Microphone inputs for digitized voice synthesizing.

Software: UNIX operating system compatibility.

Library: Webster's 9th Collegiate Dictionary and Thesaurus; the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; the complete works of William Shakespeare and other works stored on the optical disk.

Printer: 400-dots-per-inch laser printer.

COST: $6,500 for basic computer, $2,000 for printer.

GRAPHIC: Photos of computer equipment; Steven P. Jobs

Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company