In The Next Book, Bruce Webster presents an overview of the hardware and software which comprise the NeXT system which recently entered the computer workstation marketplace. Webster states his goal in writing this book as helping the reader to "feel able to discuss the NeXT system and its components intellectually" and to provide instructions on how to use the system for those who have access to a one.
Bruce F. Webster, well known as a computer columnist, has published many articles in Byte, Macworld, and other publications. For many years he was a consulting editor to Byte and authored the monthly column "According to Webster" where he discussed systems based on the 68000 processor family such as the Apple Macintosh. Webster's expertise in, and disposition toward, the Macintosh with its graphical interface and object-oriented programming environment makes him a good choice in presenting the NeXT computer.
The NeXT System
The NeXT computer, developed by NeXT, Inc, was unveiled to the public with much fanfare in October of 1988. NeXT was conceived by Steve Jobs, well known as one of the founders of Apple Computer, to meet the computer needs of the 1990's.
Since the content of the book is so closely tied with the NeXT machine itself, I'll summarize some of the features of the system:
The Cube: a one foot square black box containing the power supply, mass storage devices, system bus and motherboard. One of the most interesting aspects of the NeXT cube lies in the choice of an optical read/write disk, with a storage capacity of 256 MB, as the standard mass storage device. The NeXT system is the first to take advantage of this technology. Optionally, one may add either a 330 or 660 MB conventional magnetic hard disk. The motherboard of the system distributes its workload among a variety of processors: a 25 MHz Motorola 68030 general purpose CPU, a Motorola 68882 floating point unit and a Motorola DSP56001 digital signal processor. A Very Large Scale Integration (VSLI) chip with 12 Direct Memory Access (DMA) channels offloads input and output of data on the motherboard away from the CPU. The controllers for the optical and magnetic disks as well as the video circuitry also reside on the motherboard. The motherboard can accommodate 16 megabytes of memory using 1 MB Surface-mount In-line Memory Modules (SIMMS) or 56 MB once 4 MB SIMMS become available.
MegaPixel display system. The NeXT system presents itself to the user through its 17 inch MegaPixel monitor at a resolution of 1120 by 832, displaying images at a respectable 94 dots per inch. The 83 key keyboard plugs into the display and the 2-button mouse in turn connects to the keyboard. The MegaPixel display contains the system's speaker and has a jack for a microphone. All the switches and controls for the NeXT system reside on the keyboard. There are no switches on the cube. NeXT produces hard copy output through its 400 dpi laser printer.
Software: The NeXT system uses a variant of Unix called Mach as its operating system. The user controls the system though a graphic interface using the mouse to manipulate windows, icons and menus. Users of other windowing environments, especially the Apple Macintosh, will feel at home with the NeXT interface, but still realize its distinctive character. NeXT bundles quite a collection of applications software with its hardware, including RightNow, a word processor, Mathematica, a sophisticated symbolic mathematics application, reference works, including a dictionary, source of quotations, and its own on-line documentation. A variety of system utilities and program development tools come with the system.
The NeXT Book
Bruce Webster methodically and clearly presents the NeXT system to the readers. The book's character is descriptive and informational rather than analytical. The book makes few assumptions about the technical knowledge of the reader. In describing the hardware components that comprise the system, for example, Webster first explains the concepts in general terms before stating how they are implemented in the NeXT system. He provides a context for the NeXT system by comparing its components with those of other microcomputer systems.
When the author turns from the hardware to the software, he provides not only background concepts and descriptions of the programs, but also gives tutorial-like instructions on how to use them. Those with access to a NeXT system should be able to make rapid progress on learning to use their machine by reading Part III of the book and working through the examples and exercises, even if they have little previous computer experience.
As mentioned above, NeXT's internal operating environment is a form of Unix. One chapter describes how to access the traditional Unix command level interface and surveys concepts involved in the Unix operating system and its command structure. This chapter provides a nice introduction to Unix and helps convince the reader of the NeXT computer's power and sophistication since it has it its disposal all the resources of this powerful operating system.
Not all the material in the book is introductory. The final chapter of The NeXT book describes the development of software applications. Object-oriented programming typically dominates software development in graphical environments, and the NeXT system employs it thoroughly. Webster explains the fundamental object-oriented approach of software on the NeXT system and how objects can be used to more easily implement the features in the program's design. Webster explains the steps involved in creating programs on the NeXT system through a combination of the menu-driven Interface Builder which creates the interface of the program, and the use of the Objective-C compiler executed through the Unix command level interface to build the logic of the program. The latter part of this chapter assumes that the reader will have a working knowledge of the C programming language.
While The NeXT Book provides an excellent description the NeXT computer, its scope does not include a critical evaluation of the system in the context of other workstations and high-end microcomputers on the market today. I would have liked to read a little more discussion about the spectrum of computers available, the distinction between high performance microcomputers and multi-user networked workstations, and how the NeXT computer fits in. Those considering acquiring a NeXT system will need to look elsewhere for quantitative comparisons between this machine and other high performance systems.
Bruce Webster bases this book on his experience with the NeXT machine through its 0.9 Release. Since the system has been out for over a year now, readers with serious interest in the NeXT computer will want to review current literature to learn about improvements and additions in the 1.0 Release and to find out about new software applications that are now available for the Next computer.
The NeXT system will surely have a strong influence in the modern computer arena. It introduces read/write optical disks, integrated digital signal processing, a new interface and other technologies that elevate the state of the art. The NeXT Book is an important resource for those who want to study this significant advancement. (3.5 disks)
To order contact Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-201-15851-X. Softcover. $22.95.