NeXT Fans Give Up the Ghost By Pete Mortensen Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/mac/0,2125,69888,00.html
02:00 AM Dec. 21, 2005 PT Among the many milestones in the tech world this last year, one occurred almost without notice. The Bay Area NeXT Group, an important user group formed 15 years ago around Steve Jobs' second great computer design, slipped into history in 2005, even as the technology that sparked it reached millions of users under a new name: OS X. Few remember the NeXT Cube, and fewer ever used one. The machine was the first computer Jobs masterminded after his 1985 departure from Apple Computer; it was sexy and powerful but also expensive and proprietary, and in the four years NeXT made hardware, only about 50,000 Cubes sold. But before Jobs sold his second, less-popular computer company back to Apple in December 1996, NeXT attracted a devoted following that celebrated the platform's stability, powerful graphics and object-oriented programming model. The most prominent voice of that following was the Bay Area NeXT Group, a Silicon Valley organization that met regularly on Stanford University's campus. The group swapped software, entertained presentations from developers and shared inside information about what its members still considered the computer of the future. "You could do amazing things with (NeXT)," said Robert MacKimmie, a one-time NeXT employee and a BANG alum. "There was nothing standing in your way." Remarkably, BANG stayed vital long after the last NeXT Cube was sold, even relocating its meetings to Apple Town Hall in Cupertino, California. When Apple took NeXT's innovative operating system, NEXTSTEP, into its development cocoon, the group continued to track and support the software. And when the technology emerged as Mac OS X, Apple acknowledged BANG's contribution by previewing the new OS at a group meeting that turned into one of BANG's few standing-room-only events. "It was a faux pas on my part," said MacKimmie. "I made an open invitation for people to come to BANG, and it was a crisis; Apple almost wouldn't let it be shown, because they hadn't shown it publicly themselves." In effect, BANG hung in just long enough to see the fringe technology it believed in so fervently gain mainstream success; then, like a spirit at peace, it vanished. The group has now been silent since December 2004. BANG isn't the only user group to disband in recent years. Computer history is littered with defunct platforms and companies: CP/M, Atari ST, Xerox Star, Commodore 64, Amiga, the Canon Cat, OS/2. Each succumbed to market forces before folding or becoming community projects. Each had a dedicated base of users that believed in the underlying technology. Some of them continue to keep the faith. The Fresno Commodore Users Group meets regularly to talk about its 8-bit platform of choice. Amiga fans have kept the torch alight, porting the system to new hardware and keeping its interface current. But for many, their roles were supplanted as the internet grew to foster the kind of community that used to be their sole domain, said Sellam Ismail, the software curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. "You don't really need to branch out or seek other people in the local community," Ismail said. "You have access to the world community." In BANG's case, a web server crash and a plague of scheduling conflicts were the proximate causes of its demise. But the group was ultimately done in by the very thing that sustained it -- the expertise of its membership. As time went on, many were hired as Apple employees. Though closer than ever to the former NeXT technologies, those members were unable to discuss the details of their work, especially when dealing with unreleased products. "It's rather easier to get a meeting together to talk about things sort of hypothetically as an outsider," said Malcolm Crawford, a BANG board member now working as a technical writer for Apple. "As soon as you become a member of the company, you're considerably more constrained in what you can say." With unannounced OS X developments off-limits, BANG transformed into a social club. "BANG became more of an occasion to be gathering and seeing people once a month and getting caught up than the place to get that information you couldn't get any other place," MacKimmie said. Today, organizers insist BANG could return any time, especially since the ancient NeXT machine housing the group's mailing list came back to life a few weeks ago. "I still kind of hope we haven't had the last meeting yet. We'll see how it goes. If it does become a sort of old-fogies group meeting for dinner, so be it," Crawford said. "But then, I enjoy just meeting for dinner." In the four years since its introduction, OS X has changed from a risky experiment to an embraced part of Mac culture. Its NeXT roots are all but forgotten footnotes to the larger story of Apple. The quiet dissolution of BANG reflects that. "The whole NeXT thing remained an unquestioned heritage of absolutely knowledgeable engineers, familiar with powerful technology," MacKimmie wrote in an e-mail. "But it had to become stealth as an identity so that the two cultures could meld as one." End of story You are a subscribed member of the infowarrior list. Visit www.infowarrior.org for list information or to unsubscribe. This message may be redistributed freely in its entirety. Any and all copyrights appearing in list messages are maintained by their respective owners.