[SIGCIS-Members] Some responses re Lisa/Mac

Brian Dear brian at platohistory.org
Thu Apr 27 12:31:42 PDT 2017

Regarding NeXT, I owned a Cube, some NeXTstations, and Canon object.stations all running NeXTSTEP — it was my primary desktop environment all during the 1990s. It was the best platform for years — nothing else came close. I did everything on it: email, Web browsing, writing code, pumping out big desktop-published documents with a NeXT laser printer, doing graphics galore, etc. It was a fantastic machine for getting work done.

One could argue that Hansen’s conclusion that “they stayed afloat long enough to get acquired by Apple for their technology” is a rather large understatement. NeXTSTEP’s DNA quickly permeated Apple’s Mac operating system to the degree that it essentially *became* the operating system (Mac OS X), which not only looked like NeXTSTEP (even down to the Dock on the desktop) but more importantly under the hood *was* for all intents and purposes NeXTSTEP with an upgraded Objective-C code base. Even today, any seasoned Mac or IOS developer is intimately familiar with a vast library of function calls that start with the letters NS.

I have often quipped that in many ways, it was *NeXT* that acquired Apple, not the other way around, and to do so for a mere $400 million, was perhaps the best “acquisition" in history . . . 

- Brian

Brian Dear
PLATO History Project
Santa Fe, NM
brian at platohistory.org <mailto:brian at platohistory.org>

p.s. Having used Apple Lisas at work on a daily basis in 1984 (I was at Hazeltine Corporation then), I can attest to the machine’s slowness but also utility. We pumped out many a document, flowchart, and project graph thanks to the Lisas we used. Sure, it cost a fortune, but it did the job well, and I was not aware of anything in the PC world at the time that could have come close to the productivity boost we had with the Lisas. 

> On Apr 27, 2017, at 11:58 AM, Hansen Hsu <hansnhsu at gmail.com> wrote:
> A really interesting comparison is between the Lisa and the NeXT Computer (“Cube”), the two machines Jobs worked on just before, and just after, the Mac.
> Both were overly expensive, overly capable. NeXT Cube started at $6500 but a complete system ended up around $10K after peripherals.
> Both had problematic removable storage (Lisa’s Twiggy floppy drives, NeXT’s magneto-optical disk).
> Both had object-oriented frameworks (Lisa ToolKit, AppKit)
> Both ran 68000-based processors (the NeXT used a 68030)
> Unlike Lisa, the NeXT was originally targeted at a much smaller niche market, academia/higher education. That was partly so NeXT could leverage the expertise that Dan’l Lewin, who had been started Apple’s effective Mac education sales strategy, could provide. 
> I was also because NeXT had to sign a non-compete agreement with Apple to settle a lawsuit stemming from the fact that Jobs had recruited several Apple employees (including Bud Tribble from the Mac team, and Rich Page from the Lisa team) to help him start NeXT.
> But it also affected the design of the machine, by building in cutting edge technologies straight out of academic computer science.
> NeXT’s OS was based on Unix, which was important to the academic market, which was already using Unix workstations from Sun and Apollo. It also used the Mach kernel, developed by Avie Tevanian and others at CMU.
> And in embracing object-oriented programming throughout the OS, it was buying into one of the hottest trends in computer science in the late 1980s.
> Eventually NeXT expanded beyond the education market when they signed a deal with BusinessLand, which was, at the time, the nation’s largest reseller of computers directly to businesses.
> They also started courting institutional and enterprise customers, and by 1992, national security agencies were using NeXTs, as well as Wall Street banks.
> But the NeXT was sitting in a very liminal place in the computer market. It was sort of a PC, and sort of a Unix workstation, but wasn’t ideally targeted at either market. Despite the non-compete agreement, Jobs wanted the NeXT to be a better Macintosh, with third party applications for end users, and courted developer support from Lotus to make the Improv spreadsheet, as well as desktop publishing and other applications traditionally associated with the Mac. But at roughly $10K an installation the NeXT couldn’t compete against the existing installed base of Macs and IBM PCs.
> But he was also selling to higher education and was pitching the NeXT as a way for university researchers to quickly write applications that could be used in the classroom or for research using NeXT’s object-oriented Application Kit. So in that sense NeXT was competing directly with Sun. But though NeXT embraced some open technologies, it never really focused on the kinds of scientific and engineering applications that Sun did. It was treating workstation users like PC users. Randall Stross spends a significant amount of his book comparing NeXT and Sun’s strategies.
> Ultimately NeXT’s hardware business failed, and the company shut down its automated factory in Fremont, ported the NeXTSTEP OS to Intel, and became a software company selling primarily to enterprise and government. Exactly the kind of business Steve Jobs was not interested in. But after their initial failure, they stayed afloat long enough to get acquired by Apple for their technology.
>> On Apr 26, 2017, at 8:37 PM, Thomas Haigh <thomas.haigh at gmail.com <mailto:thomas.haigh at gmail.com>> wrote:
>> Some of the responses remind me that there were many other 68000 based machines in the mid-1980s, beyond the Mac and Lisa. Early Sun and Apollo workstations created a viable niche for graphics workstations. They, IIRC, had similar specs to the Lisa and were if anything more expensive – but targeted technical computing niches. This also points out the importance of expectations and business models. Lisa is called a failure because it only sold 100,000 units in two years, as Apple was expected to sell large volumes for mainstream business use. If a workstation startup had sold 100,000 units it would have been seen as hugely successful. For example, in 3Q 1985 Apollo, then the leading workstation firm, had revenues of about $55 million. That would be about 5,500 Lisas at the $10K launch price. So I suspect that in 1983, $10K is what it a powerful 32-bit networked graphics workstation had to sell for, and the problem was that Apple (and Xerox with the Star) were targeting the markets that couldn’t yet support that price tag. Also, in the case of Apple at least, it didn’t have the culture or sales machine to effectively target the market it chose.
>> This points to the importance and difficulty of OS development. The workstations tended to use UNIX-derived systems, which reduced the burden of development. In terms of hardware, the Lisa was as I understand basically a Mac with a bigger screen, networking, and a hard drive. It’s the focus of the OS on personal interaction that makes them more profoundly different. Also, as Hansen mentions, the success of Apple in gaining third party application support, including PageMaker, which Cringely used to define the concept of a “killer app” (i.e. something you’d buy a Mac Plus, a hard drive, and a LaserWriter just to run). Although that particular combo must have cost as much as a Lisa, and surely a successful Lisa would have been at least as well placed to win adoption for desktop publishing. It is, however, an example of an application that couldn’t run effectively on a DOS PC. Another 68000 machine, the Amiga, found success in video production.
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