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Below is a book review I wrote for Computer Music 
Journal of Randall Stross' book about Steve Jobs 
and his business ventures. 

-- peer


TITLE __________ Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing
AUTHOR _________ Randall E. Stross
PUBLISHER ______ Atheneum
EDITION ________ 1993, pp 374, hardcover
ISBN ___________ 0-689-12135-0
APPROX-COST ____ $24.00

Several books have been written about Steve Jobs and his days at Apple.  The newest about the computer wiz is the first to focus on Steve Jobs's small company NeXT.  The book, which was released late in 1993, is a very critical analysis of Steve Jobs and reveals NeXT's often unusual business strategies.  The release time of 'Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing' is as unfortunate as it possibly could be, which the author, Randall Stross, reluctantly admitted after one of his presentations at Stanford University on December 8, 1993.  I believe there are several reasons for this.  The most essential is that Sun Microsystems (the company that Stross praises throughout his book) has told the world that NeXT is a company worth investing in.  The NeXT-Sun deal happened shortly after the book was printed.  Another reason, which has more to do with Stross' writing style, is that it resembles too much the tone and manner that he accuses Steve Jobs of using.  For example, Stross claims that Steve Jobs believes "that history could be commanded to repeat itself", and refers to a large site of NeXT computers as "the sinkhole from hell."

It is also unfortunate that Stross, in his eagerness to strip away Steve Jobs' accomplishments for being inventive, forgets to mention the research and business spinoffs from the NeXT computer – e.g., the fact that companies like Silicon Graphics have inherited many of the NeXT-computers' innovative features.  Yes, it is significant that, for example, Ed McCracken, the CEO at Silicon Graphics, says in an interview in MicroTimes (July 1992 issue), that he "admires the fact that Steve Jobs is trying to define a new platform.  So many companies today are just copying what other companies do, and cloning them.  It's nice to see a company that's willing to do the hard work of really defining how people are going to use computers and trying to design a platform that fits their needs."   It did not take long after the NeXT computer was released before Silicon Graphics unveiled their low-end Indigo — which had similar features as the NeXT machine.  One of those features was a signal processing chip, now notorious in the computer music community; the Motorola 56000.  Due to the ever increasing speed of CPU's, especially by invoking RISC's, a dedicated signal processor is not that crucial today, but when the NeXT computer was unveiled in 1988, it was a very unique and useful component which made 16-bit realtime audio available at low cost.  But high quality sound and multimedia seem to be irrelevant for Stross when he is disparaging the DSP-unit as "a dazzling capability that time would show had a astounding lack of appeal outside of university music departments."   It's remarkable that Silicon Graphics is not even mentioned in the book.  However, since Stross devotes a great deal of space to describing Sun and its CEO, one could almost mistake this to be a book about Sun were it not for the title.

Following the book's introduction (which sets the tone early on for the rest of the book), Randall Stross divides his text into 14 chapters, which are briefly summarized as follows: (1) the influential days at Xerox PARC; (2) Steve Jobs at Apple; (3) research and business culture in Silicon Valley; (4) Ross Perot and other NeXT-investors; (5) aesthetic and technical design of the NeXT computer; (6) the success of Sun and its founders; (7) the unveiling of the NeXT-Cube in San Francisco's symphony hall in October 1988; (8) struggling businesses in academia; (9) sales and distribution, which include the rise and fall of Businessland; (10-13) new strategies and more difficulties for NeXT; (14) wrap up, ending with the Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas (fall, 1992).

It is noticeable how quickly a book gets anachronistic when the author is dependent on unilateral sources and braids the facts with personal comments.  I believe that the latter is the most unfortunate part, since Randall Stross does not seem to have enough knowledge when it comes to computers and its industry to comment on it.  In addition to the often infantile attacks on Steve Jobs as a person, the book has too many errors to become a reliable document about NeXT and its business.

A common thread throughout the book is to rely on secondary sources and to omit details which are hidden inside these sources.  Often this confuses the points that he is trying to make.  It's tempting to use Stross' own way of reasoning when he, for example, compares NeXT's sales figures to Apple's by pointing to the ridiculous fact that John Sculley sold more units at Pepsi than he did later at Apple.  Anyone knows that a can of soda is not comparable to a computer, but Randall Stross actually walks straight into this rampant trap by blurring the distinction between quality and quantity.  This happens several times, e.g., when he implies that a PC-clone for $2,000 is comparable to a $9,000 NeXTstation Color because they both have color (without mentioning what actually comes with each system), or when he talks about how much cheaper a RISC from Sun is compared to a CISC from NeXT by quoting a price of $3,995 for a Sun Classic.  This misleading picture is caused not only by omitting what comes with each computer, but also by giving no clue that the customer has to purchase twelve of them in order to get this price.  On several occasions, Stross also cites a number which is supposed to represent NeXT's capital and credit.  He gives no indication that this figure is obtained from a secondary source and that it is a mere estimate that a couple of journalists did for the April 1993 issue of UNIX-World magazine.  This estimate is used by Stross without references and as if it was a factual figure.  Since NeXT is a privately held company, this information is concealed from the public, including Stross.

The few aforementioned examples of inaccuracies may be viewed as of minor importance.  But when we add them all up, the reader is given a show of tabloid journalism familiar from far less serious publications.  It's not hard to refute the author's claim that his book is a historic document.  Even though Stross has a systematic approach and writes well, it's sad to see historic events mixed with personal offense toward Steve Jobs.  The chapter about the early days at Xerox research center ("Playing in the PARC") and the chapter about Sun Microsystems ("Sundry Competition") make the best reading and would have been a better choice for the main topic of this book.

Peer Landa
Stanford, California