STEVE JOBS, SHIRT SLEEVES rolled up to his elbows, long hair over his collar, sits like a virtuoso at the keyboard of his new computer. Behind him, projected onto a huge screen, computer images – silvery letters and symbols – expand and shrink, leap and pop about as Jobs puts the machine through its paces. An audience of 200 business people watches as he demonstrates how, in seconds, the computer can find a reference buried in the complete works of Shakespeare or create a model of a bouncing molecule. Speakers boom out a message by way of the voice-mail system, and then broadcast a snatch of Bach – ”synthesized,” Jobs boasts, ”from pure mathematics.”
He has named this computer NeXT. ”What we want,” he tells the audience, ”is to create the next computing revolution. We want to push the envelope.” The name NeXT stakes his claim to the newest standard in the industry – a PC with unprecedented power and versatility and an innovative programming system – but it is also an undisguised reference to curiosity about the next chapter in the story of Steve Jobs.
In l976, at the age of 21, Steven Paul Jobs co-founded Apple Computers with Stephen G. Wozniak, five years his senior, whom Jobs had known since he was a sophomore at Homestead High School, in California’s Silicon Valley. Within five years, Apple had become a billion-dollar company. Then in 1985 Jobs was forced out – by John Sculley, whom Jobs himself had hired two years before to be the company’s chief executive. Ever since, working in almost total secrecy, Jobs had been preparing a comeback. Now, at age 34, no longer the boy wonder of the computer industry, he was starting over.
IN SILICON VALLEY, A COMPUTER IS CALLED A ”box,” a sign that the guts may be less important than the skin. The guts of Jobs’s new machine are housed in a ribbed black magnesium cube. Keyboard and monitor are
separate, connected by cables, the 17-inch screen dramatically cantilevered over a swooping support. ”Computers,” Jobs likes to say, ”are the metaphor of our time. They should share a certain higher esthetic.”
Not that what is inside the NeXT box is unimportant: a new optical memory system that uses a laser to store and read up to 250 volumes’ worth of information on a single disk, a sound system of CD quality, a powerful array of sophisticated processing chips, and innovative software.
”What other computer can you sit down to,” he says, referring to the ”Digital Librarian” feature of the NeXT machine, ”and blast through the complete works of William Shakespeare in just a couple of seconds?”
Although it looks like a personal computer, the NeXT machine is much more powerful than any PC on the market. It has the capabilities of computers known as workstations, previously used mostly by engineers and scientists. Like most workstations, it employs Unix, an aging but powerful basic software system. But at $10,000 it costs much less than most workstations of comparable power.
Business has traditionally eschewed the Unix system, and it still accounts for just 9 percent of the computer market today. But, thanks in part to NeXT, Unix is expected to more than double its share in the next five years. Jobs has encased its complexities in a new variation of the software, a ”user shell” that will make it, he says, ”usable by mere mortals.