NeXT Inc. Introduces a New Type of Computer System Aimed at Higher Education
By Allison Thomas and Cathy Cook
October 12, 1988
San Francisco, CA -- NeXT Inc., of Palo Alto, Wednesday unveiled the NeXT Computer System, designed to meet the demanding and diverse needs of higher education.
The system encompasses the best attributes of workstations and personal computers, adds features previously found only on mainframes and introduces entirely new innovations.
"NeXT's mission is to collaborate with higher education to develop innovative, personal and affordable computer solutions for the next decade and beyond," said Steven P. Jobs, president and chief executive officer of NeXT.
"We began our product design process at key higher education centers in this country, discovering what they wanted from a computer. Based on what we heard, we have created a revolutionary learning and research environment that represents what computing will be like in the 1990s.
"Currently, there is a revolution in software development and use on college and university campuses, generating powerful concepts such as simulated environments for both research and learning. The problem is that higher education lacks a predictable computing target for software developers, which slows emergence of practical products.
"NeXT intends to provide this target by raising the lowest common denominator for standard capabilities in academic computing. In this way, we will help spur the realization of some innovative and important software ideas," Jobs said.
NeXT saw the need in higher education for a computer that combined qualities of workstations and personal computers, with cabilities far-exceeding either. Specifically, the company took the workstation concepts of built-in networking, large standard display screens, multitasking and a robust application development environment, and designed and packaged them in a one-foot cube with personal computer-like characteristics such as affordability, efficient manufacturability and cool, quiet and reliable use.
At the same time, NeXT recognized that significant innovations were necessary to extend its computer system beyond a laundry list of impressive features.
NeXT chose to innovate in four main areas:
A mainframe on two chips: The architectures of both workstations and personal computers contain inherent bottlenecks to higher performance that cannot be resolved by faster processors alone. To manage the flow of information within the system to yield peak efficiency, NeXT designed the ICP and OSP, two proprietary VLSI (very large-scale integration) chips that endow the system with mainframe-like capabilities.
NextStep: Although UNIX provides powerful capabilities and is the most prevalent operating system for higher education and research, the complexity of UNIX-based computers has put them beyond the reach of almost everyone except scientists and engineers. At the same time, developing graphical application software has traditionally extracted an inordinate amount of time and expertise.
NeXT has addressed both these problems with NextStep, an object- oriented software environment. NextStep makes the power of UNIX accessible to all users, while it also significantly reduces the time, expertise and software code developers need to construct graphical, end-user applications.
Personal Optical Storage and the Digital Library: The potential for desktop computers to open the world's knowledge to an individual has been restricted, in part, by inadequate mass storage and poor searching and indexing capabilities. To break through these restrictions, NeXT used a new storage technology called magneto- optics to create a removable, read/write/erasable 256 Megabyte Optical Disk as the Computer System's standard mass storage device.
The Optical Disk makes possible the concept of the "Digital Library," which can comprise on-line reference and literary works, musical scores or images of photographic quality.
Included with every system is a powerful searching and indexing tool called the Digital Librarian and a "starter" Digital Library.
Sound and Music: Sound is considered a vital communication medium. As a result, NeXT has made sound capabilities integral to its computer system: a microphone jack for input, CD-quality stereo output, a powerful 10 MIPS (million insructions per second) Digital Signal Processor (DSP) and a standard voice mail application. To encourage the development of applications that include sound, music and voice, the system also includes the SoundKit and MusicKit.
The Sum is greater than the parts
"Many of the NeXT Computer System's individual components represent major technological breakthroughs," Jobs said. "Taken in sum, they generate capabilities and potential exceeding that of any existing category of computer system."
The sytem's basic hardware configuration includes the computer, a one-foot cube that houses on a single board all the computer's highly integrated silicon chips; the 256 Megabyate Optical Disk for editable storage and retrieval of vast amounts of information; the 17-inch, extremely high-resolution MegaPixel Display; and the 400 dpi Laser Printer, which is the first affordable PostScript laser printer and the first low-cost laser printer to provide 400 dots per inch (dpi) resolution.
Underlying all the system's capabilities is a small, powerful and efficient set of computer chips, all of which are standard and fit onto a single board. There are three high-performance processors in every system.
The main processor is Motorola's top-of-the-line microprocessor, the 68030. Accompanying it is Motorola's 68882 Floating-Point Unit, for fast mathematical computations. Both these chips run at 25 megahertz.
The third processor is a 10 MIPS Motorola 56001 Digital Signal Processor chip, for real-time sound and array processing. The board can also support up to 16 megabytes (MB) of main memory.
Two proprietary VLSI chips, designed by NeXT, give the sytem its mainframe-like qualities. The Integrated Channel Processor (ICP) manages the flow of data among the central processing unit (the 68030), main memory and all peripheral devices. By offloading the 68030 and ensuring the efficient flow of data within the system, the ICP allows the 68030 to run at its full rated capacity of 5 MIPS.
The ICP provides 12 dedicated DMA (direct memory access) channels, including channels for Ethernet networking and for disks, monitor, printer and other peripheral devices. The single ICP chip replaces several hundred chips performing similar functions on a mainframe computer, and it raises sustained system throughput to a level impossible with either personal computer or workstation architectures.
The other VLSI chip, the Optical Storage Processor, controls the 256 Megabyte Optical Disk, making possible this new storage technology The Optical Disk combines the vast storage capacities, removability and reliability of laser technology with the fast access and full read/write/erase capabilities of Winchester (magnetic) technology.
The Optical Disk provides unprecedented information storage, manipulation and retrieval. With the Optical Disk working in conjunction with the Digital Librarian, a specially designed searching and indexing tool, users can almost instantaneously locate any textual information, in any form, anywhere in the computer.
They can also browse through the system to uncover information, ideas or connections between concepts.
Software as Part of the System
NeXT includes an unparalled amount of software in the price of every NeXT Computer System. The software starts with Mach, an advanced multitasking operating system compatible with 4.3BSD UNIX, which is the standard operating system in higher education communities.
In addition, the NeXT Computer System includes NextStep, a complete software environment consisting of four components: the Window Server, the Workspace Manager, the Application Kit and the Interface Builder. The object-oriented environment was developed with the Objective-C programming language, from the Stepstone Corp.
NextStep solves the two major problems with UNIX-based systems: They are too complex and difficult for most non-programmers to use, and they require developers to spend an inordinate amount of time and expertise creating graphical, end-user applications. For users, NextStep makes the power of UNIX available by substituting a window- based, graphical and intuitive interface for the traditional UNIX comand-line interface. For developers, NextStep includes the Application Kit, a set of interacting software "objects" for constructing applications.
Also included in NextStep is Interface Builder, a completely new kind of software development tool. Interface Builder works graphically, letting the developer construct an application by choosing from a palette of available objects and using the mouse and keyboard to modify the objects as needed, define the layout and establish connections between objects.
This process permits the rapid construction of graphical user interfaces and makes application development accessible to a much larger community.
NextStep uses the Display PostScript system to ensure true WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) between the screen and the printer. The Display PostScript system includes a high-performance implementation of the PostScript language, the de facto imaging standard for printing. It simplifies the programming of graphical applications that support high-quality printing.
To further aid developers, the NeXT Computer System includes the SoundKit, MusicKit, array processing routines, assemblers, compilers, debuggers and a terminal emulator.
Standard with each system, on the 256 Megabyte Optical Disk, is a basic Digital Library. A Digital Library can contain complete reference works, books, images or musical scores.
The bundled library includes the Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, including definitions, pronunciations and illustrations, not just spelling; Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus; the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; the Oxford University Press edition of William Shakespeare; The Complete Works.
NeXT technical references and other pertinent technical references.
The NeXT Computer System also includes a rich set of bundled application software. These applications include WriteNow, a full- featured word processing program; Mathematica, a symbolic mathematics program; the powerful NeXT SQL Database Server, from Sybase; Allegro CL Common Lisp; Jot, a personal text database manager; and a graphical electronic mail application with integrated voice mail capabilities.
NeXT has built its business plan and products to meet the needs of higher education. The company determined these needs through close collaboration with leaders at college and university campuses nationwide, uncovering the gaps between current and ideal computer technology for this marketplace.
"Higher education is a huge market, certainly big enough in itself to grow NeXT to critical mass," said Dan'l Lewin, vice president of sales and marketing and NeXT. "Beyond that, higher education is the most demanding and diverse marketplace conceivable. It provides a real acid test. If we can do well here, were can do well anywhere.
"The key is understanding and committing to a business model that works the way higher education does, both in its generic form and as it varies from campus to campus. That's where NeXT has the edge, because we are the only computer company that has amassed both the market knowledge and the technological ability to deliver the right computing tools," Lewin said.
During 1988, NeXT will market its computer System directly to several dozen of the nation's top institutions and software developers. NeXT expects to appeal to higher education on the strength of its technology tools and through the personal business relationships the company has established with the higher education community.
Price and Availability
The standard NeXT Computer System configuration, which includes 8 MB of main memory, the 256 Megabyte Optical Disk, the MegaPixel Display, keyboard, mouse and complete system software, will sell for $6,500. The 400 dpi Laser Printer will sell for $2,000. All prices quoted are for higher education.
NeXT will ship systems to its key customers and developers starting this quarter, and expects to ship systems with final software by the second quarter of 1989 to a broader base of institutions and developers.
Available options to the standard configuration include 4 MB RAM expansion modules (up to 16 MB total), 660 MB and 330 MB high- performance Winchester drives, an Ethernet kit, blank Optical Disks and printer toner cartridges.
NeXT Inc., of Palo Alto, was founded in October 1985 by Steven P. Jobs, co-founder and former chairman of Apple Computer Inc., and five other individuals. The mission of the privately held company is to collaborate with higher education to develop innovative, personal and affordable computer solutions for the 1990s and beyond.
Copyright Business Wire 1988