Steve’s NeXT Big Thing [Recollections]



In this highly-entertaining final installment of his series about Steve Jobs, Macworld founder David Bunnell is taken by Jobs to his favorite lunch spot (you’ll never guess where it is). And for once, Jobs changes his parking habits.

I talked to Mike Murray in September, 1985, shortly after Steve Jobs had turned in his resignation as Chairman of Apple following a nasty, back-stabbing battle with John Sculley. Mike was worried Steve was so depressed he might kill himself. “I went over to his mansion in Woodside,” Mike said, “and found him curled up on a mattress on the floor, so I laid down with him and we both cried.”

It was a dark time and while I was fully aware of how ridiculous and unreasonable Steve could be, he was still the source of great creativity and charisma. It was hard to imagine what Apple Computer would be like without him.

As time would prove, he was essentially irreplaceable. First John Sculley and then Michael Spindler and finally Gil Amelio tried, but failed to follow in his footprints.

They all must have felt pressure from some part of Steve Job’s genetic code, which was, and is, forever embedded in the company. Each tried to act cool but somehow looked uncomfortable. They became faux hip CEO’s in blue jeans who hung out with celebrities, and pretended to have great technical vision.

Particularly galling to me was when Sculley declared himself Apple’s “Chief Technology Officer.” I remember nearly choking on the bagel I was eating when I read this in the San Jose Mercury.

Meanwhile, after toying with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate from California even though he had never bothered to vote in an election, Steve recovered from his funk. He announced the formation of a new company called NeXT.

Steve pulled me aside at a press conference where he unveiled the $100,000 logo he commissioned from the famous graphic designer, Paul Rand, and invited me to visit his new headquarters just off Redwood Road in Palo Alto. This was very exciting because I really believed he was going to pull it off. NeXT would be a huge hit, and I was toying with idea of doing another magazine.

The offices of NeXT were unbelievable. They were housed in an ordinary Silicon Valley building just off Redwood Road, but the interior was stunning, featuring a beautiful floating staircase designed by I.M. Pei, not unlike some of the ones found these days in Apple retail stores.

I waited in the employee lounge/cafeteria on the second floor. I remember the unusually beautiful wooden floors, modern furnishings that were sleek and expensive and most of all some beautiful Ansel Adams framed photographs on the walls. The front desk person who had escorted me said Steve brought in a real great sushi chef who made the best “vegan sushi” she had ever tasted. And it was free along with massages, an unbelievable health plan and other perks.

Dan’l Lewin, who directed Apple’s education market efforts before fleeing with Steve to perform a similar but more visible function at NeXT, chatted with me for a few moments and then invited me into conference room where Steve was posed before a chalkboard. Before I could even sit down, he was madly drawing diagrams and arrows on the board while explaining that the higher education market NeXT was targeting was much larger than people realized.

Steve told me he had lunch with the famous Stanford biologist Paul Berg who encouraged him to create an affordable computer with powerful enough graphics to teach undergraduate students DNA basics. Just using textbooks wasn’t good enough and using “wet labs” for testing biological matter was too expense. What was need was a computer that could simulate these activities. Personal computers weren’t up to the task and the workstations that were, were way too expensive.

I found it a bit disappointing that NeXT wasn’t going for a much bigger market, but Steve was Steve and maybe that was enough. He then said, “let’s go to lunch, I’ll drive.”

Steve had traded in his Mercedes for a sleek black Porsche convertible and buzzing up Sand Hill Road with the top down was about as cool as you can get in this part of the universe. Steve drove me and Dan’l to the Stanford campus to have lunch at his favorite spot, which turned out to be, of all places, the student cafeteria. When we got to the campus, Steve had a tough time finding a parking space. He complained about the “excessive” number of reserved spaces for handicapped people, which he said was “totally out of proportion” to their numbers. But, unlike his old practice on the Apple campus, he didn’t park in one of them.

Perhaps, Steve Jobs had grown up a bit, I thought. Or perhaps on the Stanford Campus he risked getting a ticket.

I remember feeling pretty self-conscious standing there with him in the lunch line, but he was oblivious and the students didn’t seem to know who he was or they were so used to seeing him it was no big deal. During lunch, Steve told me, “I have one more computer in me and hopefully this is it. If not, we’ll sell a minimum of 40,000 just because my name associated with it, and we’ll break even.”

Steve wanted me to create a magazine for NeXT, just like Macworld, and of course, I wanted to do it. But as things developed, I left IDG and while I toyed with doing the project on my own, Steve and NeXT went ahead with my old company. At first I was bitter about this, but then I later on realized they had done me a huge favor.

The NeXT machine was a beautiful black cube with a major flaw–there was no way get software into it without it being on a network. It floundered for a few years and then was withdrawn from the market. After that, Steve went back to Apple, and the rest is history.

This was my final installment of the series, “My Close Encounters with Steve Jobs.

Part 1: Meeting Steve
Part 2: Seeing the Macintosh for the Very First Time
Part 3: We Met the REAL Steve Jobs
Part 4: Steve Jobs Tells Us to “Belly Up to the Bar”
Part 5: Steve Comes Up with a Really Weird Ad
Part 6: Steve Poses for the First Cover of Macworld
Part 7: Andrew Fluegelman Urges Apple to Delay the Introduction
Part 8: Pat McGovern Meets with Steve, the Deal is Done.
Part 9: Steve is F*cking Great!
Part 10: Steve Thumbs his Nose at the Apple II
Part 11: The Macintosh Speaks For Itself (Literally)…
Part 12: The Fat Mac Saves the Day
Part 13: Steve Brings Tina to the Macworld Dinner Party
Part 14: Ella Fitzgerald Sings Happy Birthday to Steve
Part 15: Steve’s NeXT Big Thing

Follow me on Twitter @davbunnell


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