Hardware was great while it lasted

by Simson L. Garfinkel

Redwood City, CA NeXT's hardware business died Wednesday, February 10, at the age of four after a prolonged illness.

Born in the fall of 1988, NeXT's hardware was a late entry into the workstation world that quickly made a name for itself with its distinctive color and styling. The original Cube also earned high marks for its built-in networking, optical disk, and digital signal processor (DSP), although it was criticized for sluggish performance and lack of software. The market also found it was priced too high for its intended users the high-IQ, small-wallet university set.

Soon the promising Cube was rushed back into intensive care, emerging two years later as a set of triplets: NeXTstation, NeXTstation Color, and NeXTdimension. Powered by Motorola's new 68040 processor, the machines had more than just speed. They included an extra-high-density 2.88MB floppy disk that stored twice as much as its competitors, a sleek pizza-box design, and a low price point that ran circles around the competition.

Still, hardware sales remained slow. Customers who purchased the "digital video" NeXTdimension were surprised, then angered, to discover an empty socket in-stead of the promised C-Cube JPEG compression chip. Motorola seemed to be having trouble supplying faster versions of the '040, while NeXT's workstation rivals were getting faster, thanks to their endorsement of RISC-based computing. Rumors flew that NeXT had its own RISC machine, code-named NRW, in the works. Many people expected it would be unveiled at the NeXT-WORLD Expo in January 1992.

But NeXT's news at NeXT-WORLD Expo was just a slightly faster '040, the NeXTstation Turbo. Indeed, NeXT hardware was mostly upstaged by its software sibling, NeXTSTEP, which was just going through the birth pains of its third incarnation.

NeXT's customers soon made it apparent that they wanted NeXTSTEP but not NeXTstations. Despite promises, Motorola still couldn't deliver a faster 68040 processor, while its advanced RISC processor, the 88110, was repeatedly delayed. NeXT decided to axe the 88110 in favor of the PowerPC, which Motorola was building as part of the Apple/IBM alliance.

Alas, the chip would not be available for more than a year during which time NeXT's hardware business faced bleak pro-spects. NeXT decided that continued life support for its hardware was sapping strength from its software business. They pulled the plug and let the hardware die.