I am currently watching a rerun of a BBC documentary about Apple and Steve Jobs, which made me think of the first (and only) NeXT machine I ever had. (The NeXT was what Steve Jobs did after he was fired from Apple – and the picture here is the NeXT machine at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser on.)
Anyway, the year was 1990, I was a doctoral student in my first year at Harvard Business School, and had a large office to myself (I was sharing it with other doctoral students, but for some reason they were seldom in.) One of the MBA students worked for NeXT and got us a loaner machine, and, well, it was just standing there.
At a time when computers either went “beep” with text-based displays (that would be the 386-based Intel computers) or made a lot of noises with graphic but rather crude displays (that would, mainly, be the Mac II), the NeXT stood out – a black cube made of magnesium, a connected laser printer (most of the processing was done on the computer), and an excellent screen using Display PostScript, which meant that there was no difference between what you saw on the screen and what came out on paper – it was, quite literally, the same technology.
I dicked about with that machine far more than I should have done, given my course load, but on the other hand I wrote some papers on the importance of object orientation for complex business applications – as well as a few Smalltalk programs. The NeXT cube really was not that useful – not because it wasn’t good (it was excellent) but because it was very much a network machine – and I had no network to connect it to. Neither could I get hold of the CDs necessary to store the information from the computer. I could print, but that was about it – so the machine became a highly desirable but not really useful toy.
But it managed to give me a scare, once. It had a digital signals processor – a DSP – and a good speaker system, at a time when most computers could not play video and had tinny little speakers that mostly beeped. I was sitting in the office reading something, and the NeXT machine was on, but I wasn’t using it.
Suddenly I heard a very attractive woman’s voice saying with a certain British crispness: “The printer is out of paper.” I was startled and literally looked around in the room to see if anyone was there. It took me a while to understand that it was the computer speaking – and then, of course, I couldn’t reproduce the sentence.
I still remember that confused feeling. Now most of our music and half the dialogue we hear come out of computers, but back then it was, literally, a voice from the future. And it was just a little bit scary.