NeXTSTEP is cool



When Steve Jobs left Apple in the 1980s, he started a new venture that produced NeXT UNIX computers that ran a custom UNIX system called NeXTSTEP on Motorola 68000-series computers. The first Web browser was made my Tim Berners-Lee on one of these NeXT computers!

When I was an undergrad student at the University of Waterloo, we had a few NeXT computers (literally two of them I believe) and a bunch of HP PA-RISC 712s running NeXTSTEP for object-oriented software development (it was more common to see Sun or SGI UNIX systems at the university back them).They were cool - and I remember using the HP PA-RISC 712s to do development in university thinking something along the lines of “this is nice, but not as nice as SGI IRIX (Silicon Graphics UNIX).”

The word NeXT refers to the fact that the NeXTSTEP OS ran the new Mach kernel (a complex interdependent modular kernel that most UNIX geeks in the 1980s thought would be the future direction that UNIX should take). What makes NeXTSTEP really cool is that in 1997, Steve Jobs sold NeXTSTEP (and the OPENSTEP variant) to Apple and returned to run the company again, essentially returning it from the dead and making it into the massively awesome company it is today (I don’t actually think that Apple as a company is awesome, but I love some of their products!).

NeXTSTEP turned into Mac OS X (same Mach kernel), and both are incredibly similar under the hood.

While I was cleaning up part of my software collection today, I came across a NeXTSTEP 3.3 CD for RISC computers (SPARC and PA-RISC). NeXTSTEP was actually ported to i386, SPARC and PA-RISC in the early-mid 1990s, just before it was sold to Apple and turned into Mac OS X. I also had an HP PA-RISC 712 workstation that was begging for an OS, so I loaded up NeXTSTEP and went through the install. The install and the usage of the OS was actually pretty cool.

It has a standard UNIX directory structure with a couple of twists - the regular user account has a home directory called /me and no password (even the root user didn’t have a password by default!). The applications that came on it were extremely rich and well designed, and they ran on my little PA-RISC box (with only 16MB of RAM) very very fast……in fact, I was freaked out a bit that the graphics were so good and smooth on only 16MB of RAM, and I had about 15 applications open at the same time. It was easy to set up system components and network services (there were wizards and config tools for it all!).

Applications had the exact same structure as they do in Mac OS X - they are directories with a .app extension that are executed by double-clicking on the directory (the .app is hidden in the GUI) or by using the open command (e.g. open /Applications/ This is identical in modern Mac OS X. There is a dock that stores shortcuts to applications just as there is a dock in Mac OS X - the only difference is that the dock in NeXTSTEP is at the right of the screen instead of the bottom of the screen by default.

And finally, the coolest thing I found was that when I connected it to the network in my house, my Mac OS X computers automatically detected the network services on the NeXTSTEP computer and I was able to transfer files to my current Mac OS X computer. Definitely cool.