Launching with Steve Jobs’ NeXT Computer in 1988, the NeXTSTEP operating system represented the cutting edge of desktop software design. It became the technological bedrock for Apple’s macOS, iOS, and others. Let’s look at what was so special about NeXTSTEP.
NeXTSTEP: Flexible and Elegant, with a Solid Foundation
Amid heavyweight competition from Windows, Mac OS, OS/2, and BeOS in the 1990s, the NeXTSTEP operating system stood out. This was due to its elegant use of detailed icons and typography, its built-in networking support, the easy-to-program object-oriented windowing system, and its solid UNIX roots.
All of these features (and more) earned NeXTSTEP a core group of die-hard fans. It also won fans at Apple, who guided NeXTSTEP into the future of the company. Today, hundreds of millions of people use descendants of the NeXT software on Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. But how did that happen?
The Origins of NeXTSTEP
The mid-1980s were tough for Steve Jobs. After a power struggle at Apple, he left the firm he cofounded in 1985. That same year, he founded NeXT, Inc., along with several other Apple veterans.
The crew quickly got to work creating a completely new computer platform, with Avie Tevanian in charge of software and Apple veteran Rich Page handling hardware. To avoid noncompete issues with Apple, NeXT decided to target the high-end educational workstation market.
After several years in development, the company released the NeXT Computer in October 1988. It stunned the press by leapfrogging the desktop computers of the time in capability.
Its features included:
- A 25 MHz Motorola 68030 CPU
- 8 MB of RAM
- A dedicated Motorola DSP chip for digital audio
- Built-in Ethernet
- A magneto-optical drive that could read and write 250 MB discs
- Support for a high-resolution, 1120-by-832 display with 2-bit color depth (4 shades of gray)
All of this was packed into a 12-inch magnesium cube. Of course, this kind of technology didn’t come cheap: a base model retailed for $6,500 (about $14,000 today), dramatically overshooting Jobs’ initial $3,000 target.
But hardware is only half of the story. NeXT breathed life into its new machine with a cutting-edge operating system called NeXTSTEP. It paired a UNIX/BSD-based kernel (Tevanian’s Mach) with a sophisticated, object-oriented desktop environment. It used Adobe’s Display PostScript technology to fluidly render graphics and fonts at high resolutions.
NeXTSTEP worked beautifully as a graphical mouse-based operating system with a 3D-style interface and large, detailed icons. Yet, beneath its fancy exterior lay the beating heart of a fully functional UNIX system. A hacker-friendly UNIX command prompt was also only a click away at any time, thanks to a built-in Terminal application.
Jobs’ team also conceived NeXTSTEP as a networking OS from the ground up. The v0.8 launch edition included TCP/IP networking and an advanced Mail client that could send emails with audio and digital image attachments. These network-friendly underpinnings, paired with the built-in Ethernet port and excellent application building tools, facilitated Tim Berners-Lee’s development of the first World Wide Web browser on the NeXT Platform in 1990.
In fact, some might say the real star of the NeXTSTEP show was its object-oriented development environment. It allowed developers to rapidly create sophisticated graphical applications in Objective-C based on modular code. This ease of development attracted many customers to NeXTSTEP in the early-to-mid ’90s.
Some developers used NeXTSTEP as an advanced platform to develop programs for other computers. One high profile example is Doom, the blockbuster first-person shooter that first launched on MS-DOS PCs.
During development, id Software’s John Carmack and John Romero found that the NeXT environment gave them a huge development edge. This was especially true for the DoomEd level editor they created for building the game’s maps.
“The user interface and the ease of developing GUI applications were unique to NeXT at the time,” said Carmack. “We had developed our own editors on DOS for previous games, but DoomEd was a lot more complicated, and had to flexibly evolve during the development process. NeXT was perfect for that.”
Romero added that the NeXT environment was 15 years ahead of anything else at the time. He relished the system’s high resolution, which allowed them to debug the game while simultaneously running it in a window—something that was impossible on DOS.
“We would have made Doom without NeXTSTEP,” said Romero. “But I don’t know what it would have looked like or how long it would have taken.”
Compared to the single-user Mac and DOS machines that were plagued with instability, and the powerful but cumbersome and unfriendly UNIX workstations, NeXTSTEP was a taste of the future.
A Bumpy Business Road
Despite shipping cutting-edge hard- and software, NeXT struggled to gain a reliable revenue stream throughout its existence. The academic workstation market NeXT had initially targeted proved to be too small and underfunded to support the kind of margins necessary to sell such advanced hardware.
As a result, NeXT attempted to pivot its business plan several times.
A lower-priced machine, the NeXTstation, was released in 1990 and followed by several faster workstations with advanced color capabilities. Firm sales numbers are hard to find, but NeXT reportedly only sold about 50,000 computers before pulling the plug on hardware sales in 1993.
After that, NeXT decided to focus on software, porting NeXTSTEP to other architectures, including Intel’s x86 CPUs, PA-RISC, and Sun’s SPARC machines. For a time, you could buy a boxed copy of NeXT and run it on your home 486 PC (as long as it met the system requirements).
In its final major pivot as an independent company, NeXT decided to focus primarily on its secret sauce: a world-class, object-oriented development API codeveloped with Sun called OpenStep.
In 1996, NeXTSTEP became OPENSTEP for Mach (confusingly, the all caps branding was an attempt to differentiate the OPENSTEP OS product from the OpenStep API product). NeXT also released the OpenStep API for other platforms, like Windows.
Notable NeXTSTEP Releases
NeXT shipped at least a dozen major versions of NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP for various platforms between 1988-97; below are a few of the most notable:
- NeXTSTEP 0.8 (1988): The first version to ship with NeXT hardware, included with the NeXT Computer.
- NeXTSTEP 2.0 (1990): This release introduced support for color graphics, floppy disks, CD-ROM, the first appearance of Terminal.app, and more.
- NeXTSTEP 3.1 (1993): The first release to support x86 processors, allowing NeXTSTEP to be installed on generic IBM PC-compatible hardware.
- NeXTSTEP 3.3 (1995): The last version before the OPENSTEP rename. It supported the Motorola 68K, Intel i386, PA-RISC, and SPARC platforms.
- OPENSTEP 4.2 (1996): The final version in development before Apple bought NeXT.
The Legacy of NeXTSTEP
In 1995, Apple started ramping up its efforts to acquire technology from an outside firm to use as the basis for a next-generation Macintosh operating system. The company’s executives attempted to acquire the developer of BeOS, but Steve Jobs got wind of the plan and maneuvered NeXT into consideration.
After the acquisition, Apple got a brain transplant in upper-management. Jobs and several NeXT veterans, including Tevanian and John Rubinstein, were installed as Apple executives. Some even joke that NeXT acquired Apple, rather than the other way around.
Work quickly began to turn NeXTSTEP into the next major version of Mac OS. After several prototypes called Rhapsody (and one shipping Rhapsody-based product called Mac OS X Sever 1.0), Apple landed on Mac OS X in 2000. It became the core direction of the company’s future software products—today, Mac OS X is known as macOS.
Since then, descendants of the core technologies developed for NeXTSTEP in the ’80s persist in macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS. Over time, OpenStep evolved into the Cocoa API at the heart of Mac OS X applications.
Several apps still included with macOS (including Dictionary, Chess, TextEdit, and Mail.app) all descend directly from earlier versions on NeXTSTEP. The macOS spinning pinwheel of death also started on NeXTSTEP, and NeXTSTEP’s Dock was the forefather of macOS’s.
Basically, macOS is still NeXTSTEP at its core, albeit with many major changes.
If you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane, we’ll leave you with the following bits of interesting NeXTSTEP tidbits:
- Until NeXTSTEP 2.0 in 1990, a “black hole” was the equivalent of the Trash on Mac or the Recycle Bin on Windows: In 2.0, it was changed to the “Recycler.”
- NeXTSTEP 2.0 included a preinstalled email from Steve Jobs: It was the first message to appear in the NeXT Mail email software.
- NeXTSTEP shipped with monochrome icons and applications: The OS didn’t appear in color until 1992 with NeXTSTEP 3.0.
- One of the first attempts at a digital “App Store” for computer applications debuted on NeXTSTEP in 1991: The Electronic AppWrapper sold commercial packages as digital network downloads managed by encryption and digital rights management.