It’s 1988, there is no web to surf and if you switched on a Radio you might just hear Will Smith as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sing his hit single “Parents Just Don’t Understand”.
1988 was also the year of another kind of hit. A computer that would put an end to that Radio device, a computer that would usher in a new, digital future. Who knew that by 2016, Norway would be first to announce a shut down of FM service entirely. Charles would not have been surprised.
Today, Guru Computer Scientist Charles L. Perkins is busy building the future of Virtual Reality Design (and apparently planning a trip to Mars). But in 1988, Charles’s life was turned upside down by a geometrically peculiar, black cube.
This NeXT Cube was a computing engineering vision of the future; a computer that, you could say, Parents Just Don’t Understand.
This one computer would put the technology in place that would put an end to that Radio device, and this was something that Charles, and a only few others could see.
Late 2011, after the passing of Steve Jobs, Mark Wherry writes for Sound On Sound reporting the NeXT was truly a “musician’s dream” and “one of the first computers to offer CD-quality sound with an on-board DSP chip” — Mark was right, but that’s easy to see looking back from a post-iPod / iTunes world.
So, how did we get here? What makes a world where you have all the world’s music, plus things like maps of the entire planet surface available from your phone?
“People inside the NeXT community felt people didn’t understand it. And they didn’t” —Charles reports about the state of computer media 1988 “the machine was so ahead of its time, people just didn’t understand.”
This was to be the computer where it all happened. This computer is where the world wide web would be created, freely and universally providing transfer of digital information. This computer is where the first AppStore would be created and this revolution of electronic distribution that provided the storefront, and the digital protection (DRM) artists needed to enter the digital world.
The web to freely transfer data, and the AppStore to protect digital rights online: This duo of technologies provides the very legs upon which the mobile world of today stands.
“[NeXT] Unified ten things together which made it 1,000 times better” says Perkins in his AppStorey interview. “The computer was unlike anything you had ever seen before, it was amazing”
During the mid-1800’s, Ada Lovelace, or more formally, Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace —wrote the first software programs, and is considered the mother of software theory.
Ada believed computers could model the entire physical world using software. This concept was called General Purpose Computing Engine. The idea suggested the separation of mechanical (or digital) hardware from the instructions performed. This is at a time when computing devices performed only specific pre-assembled (mechanical) calculations. Mathematically speaking, this concept of the General Purpose Computing Engine had profound implications. This was the birth of software, although John Tukey would not coin words like “bit” or the term “software” for nearly 100 years, it was Ada’s work and research that created software as computing concept.
Ada saw that future computers could potentially encode a visual image the eye could see, or digitally render sounds that one could hear —all using mathematics.
Ada understood the Universe is made by the results of mathematics, and that computer software could be used to unlock it.
… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose… pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. —Ada Lovelace, 1815 – 1852
By 1988 over 100 years of computing had advanced, but nobody was carrying 1,000 songs in their pocket.
Only a handful of human beings had the education and insights to understand the awesome potential of this moment in computer history, and Charles was one.
This was the moment where 100 years of computing theory could finally be realized. You just had to program it.
“I recall Steve coming to Boston just a matter of days from his San Francisco announcement of the NeXT Computer” — recalls Charles Perkins for AppStorey “at one point he’s got the computer playing DSP music with a violinist from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to perform Bach’s A-minor Violin Concerto, and the crowd doesn’t even know what to think. It is almost like seeing magic you know is real”
In 1988, computers could “beep” but NeXT was the first computer made with built-in Digital Signal Processor and full CD-Quality stereo sound. You could attach a voice message to email. The printer would announce if you were out of paper. There was nothing like it. Who needs an FM Radio now?“Your Printer Is Out Of Paper” —Says The NeXT Printer
At this time, Charles is a member of the Boston Computer Society or BCS, and is still proud to this day to be one of the first people to sign up to the NeXT User’s Group.
Charles had the 10th NeXT ever shipped, sent directly to his house.
This one computer would quite literally be used around the clock in continuous shifts, 24 hours a day —it is hard to imagine any new machine drawing such attention from engineers today.
It was at BCS that many NeXT influencers met for the first time. Dan Lavin, the leader of the group became an editor of the NeXTWorld Magazine, a printed periodical dedicated to this new platform. Charles was busy writing technical papers and memorable demonstrations of how to program this new Object-Oriented Computer complete with it’s magical new language, Objective-C. The same computer language used to program iPhone today.
In this 1992 Game Theory article, Charles walks readers through a few methods and classes that iPhone programmers would surely recognize today. In fact, the entire object-oriented window/view hierarchy was first created by NeXT, and remains the foundation for the interface of iOS, Apple Watch, TV and Mac today, some 30 years after. This durability is testament to the advanced nature of the NeXT and how much of the future of computing this one machine truly represented.
Charles was exactly the kind of NeXT programmer who exemplified people who were part of the NeXT community. These were engineers who seemed entirely disinterested in the mainstream thinking of the time, perfectly content to follow a vision few could see. To Charles and those like him, this computer seemed like a kind of future world that regular people just don’t understand.
NeXT solved problems most computer engineers were not yet even aware of, problems that a modern technology observer might take for granted. NeXT was uniquely suited for these fundamental computing tasks at at time when people purchased their software, and all their music at local retail stores.
“He [Steve Jobs] inspired people to try a little harder than they thought they could” reports Charles in his interview with AppStorey —“and the results were just extraordinary.”
Interface Builder for NeXT, today’s iOS tools are not just based on these tools, they ARE these tools.
Charles is just one of the first innovators who were drawn into this software revolution. This 1988 release was the very inception of the computer lineage that would evolve into the mobile world we live in today.
This NeXT Computer and it’s Object Oriented Programming technology ignited the dot-com boom. This one computer was used to invent the most influential underlying mechanisms required for the mobile revolution we live in —yet with all this history making, NeXT has been largely excluded from computer history, until now.
NeXT showed what would be the end for Radio devices, but in 1988 your parents just don’t understand.
So to you all the kids all across the land
Take it form me
Parents just don’t understand
This 1988 Hit Song, Now available on iTunes; An App Store, based on NeXT.
Come with us along a journey down to the roots of the tree of computing life. The computing world of today has this one ancestor in common, these roots are both fascinating and largely unknown outside those who were there. Until now. AppStorey, The Interviews.