NeXTSTEP

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NeXTSTEP was the next-generation Operating System envisioned by Steve Jobs and his second notable computer company, NeXT. Its multitude of advanced features and its UNIX base were incorporated into Apple's Mac OS X.

Contents

Creation

NeXTSTEP was originally conceptualized as as an Object-Oriented Toolkit -- an environment in which programmers could create powerful and solid applications swiftly and efficiently. It was to consist of three facets:

  • Mach, a microkernel developed by Carnegie-Mellon University that implemented powerful support for distributed computation and parallel computation as well as inter-process communication (IPC).
  • Object-Oriented Programming, especially using the Objective-C programming language, which is distinguished from traditional programming concepts ("instruction-oriented," or a simple list of instructions) by being visualized as a collection of objects, each of which can communicate important information with each of the other objects.
  • PostScript, a page description and printer control language that was an entire programming language in and of itself. It rasterized all graphics (even text) on-the-fly, which meant that everything visible on a printer (and monitor, in NeXTSTEP's case) was drawn using straight lines and Bézier curves. PostScript allowed printers to easily combine graphics and text on the printed page. PostScript was developed into Display PostScript by NeXT and Adobe.

The problem, Jobs soon discovered, was that no currently-existing OS was powerful enough to host the toolkit that NeXT was creating. The business model changed -- instead of marketing a development toolkit, NeXT would market their own brand of workstation, which would run NeXTSTEP as well as the development environment.

Early Versions

One of the first problems to arise was that the sheer size of the OS demanded a considerable amount of storage (even relatively old versions of NeXTSTEP can easily require as much space as a Windows 98 installation, unacceptable given the cost of hard drive space in the late eighties). In order to balance the storage demands of the OS with the already immense costs of the as-of-yet uncreated NeXT workstations, the NeXT Cubes, NeXT decided that the OS would run off a magneto-optical drive, a new and untested form of removable storage that was slower than a hard drive but less expensive. It was a great risk, especially considering that the technology did not even exist at the time of the NeXT workstation's design.

The most severe problem to arise was that NeXTSTEP was loaded from this magneto-optical drive. Even though the drive was technically removable, the disk with the OS loaded upon it could not be removed from the machine. Since the MO drive was included in the machine to replace the floppy drives (as well as the hard drive), this made transferring files between machines possibly only over the network.

NeXT's first machine, the NeXT Cube, was a spectacular failure in the marketplace due to its immense costs, impossibility of transferring files via sneakernet, and the rapidly stratifying computer market.

It's successor, the NeXTStation, was a high-end workstation in a short, wide, and deep (pizzabox) form factor with dazzling hardware features. It contained the Motorola 68040 CPU, an adequate SCSI hard drive as well as a 2.88MB floppy drive, a high-quality Digital Signal Processor capable of rendering 16-bit 44.1KHz stereo sound (ie, cd-quality), a megapixel monochrome display, and was the first machine capable of loading programs from a CD-ROM.

Unfortunately, only around 50 000 machines were sold. Much of this was due to the high cost of the machine, its reputation for failure (gained from the unreliable magneto-optical drives), and the quickly-forming two-party market based on competition between Apple's Macintosh line and PCs running Microsoft Windows. While the NeXTStation was created with full awareness of this conflict (and had tools to interface with both Macintosh and Windows computers), it was fiscally unavailable to the personal computer user and perceived as irrelevant by the professional user.

In a last-ditch effort to enlarge the market for NeXTSTEP, NeXT ported the OS to three architectures that competed with NeXT's Motorola-based hardware: PA-RISC, Intel, and SPARC, none of which were successful.

OPENSTEP

As NeXT's hardware division continued to fail miserably despite the production of almost-unquestionably superior workstations, Steve Jobs made the necessary decision to kill the production of the NeXTStation and change the business model to what it had originally started out as -- an application development environment.

To this end, NeXT and Sun formed a consortium that resulted in the transformation of NeXTSTEP into OPENSTEP, an application development environment that could run atop Sun's SOLARIS operating system as well as Microsoft's Windows and NeXTSTEP. Despite its popularity in programming and government circles, it wasn't any more successful than its previous iterations.

Adoption by Apple

After it was clear that Apple's Copland project would fail, the company approached several external OS companies, including Sun, Be and Steve Jobs' company. Ellen Hancock, formerly of IBM, advised Gil Amelio to kill the Copland project officially and leverage the future of Apple Computer on NeXTSTEP (then, OpenStep) and Steve Jobs

In December 1996, Apple Computer officially announced the aquisition of NeXT and announced Rhapsody, the codename of what would eventually become Mac OS X. The open architecture model of OpenStep gave Apple a chance to release an all-new, modern operating system in a timely manner, and were even able to re-impliment many of the promised features of Copland, such as a better Find command, a web browser and video conferencing.

A few years later, Max OS X made it's debut and has been an unparalleled success ever since.

Impact

  • NeXTSTEP introduced a lot of concepts to the computing world that would become important to subsequent operating systems:
    • Drag-and-drop object manipulation (for instance, NeXTSTEP was the first OS that allowed one to drag an image from the file browser to an email client, attaching it to an email message).
    • Display transparency.
    • Architecture independence, which would aid Apple greatly when Steve Jobs announced the transition from the PPC CPU architecture to that of Intel processors in 2005. Central to this concept is the creation of "Fat" binaries, or programs that can run on multiple architectures with no ill effects.

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