Commercial Innovation

Contrary to popular belief, the greatest thing Steve Jobs helped create was NeXT Computer, and it was a commercial failure.

What does that tell you about commercialism?

By chance I watched a video called “The Machine to Build the Machines”.

If the title sounds familiar it’s because Elon Musk has been using a similar phrase recently to refer to the Tesla Gigafactory.

This video (with it’s perfectly-tuned 80’s flair) was fun to watch but more interesting was this bit of a documentary about NeXT that showed up in the recommendations:

If you’ve been involved in the “tech industry” and watch this video, you’re going to hear a lot of problems that seem very familiar.

Two things are What’s most jarring about studying NeXT. The first is that 30 years ago they were experiencing the problems that most “innovative” technology companies are still struggling with today. The second is that their solution to these problems wasn’t business or even technology related, but to return to the meaning of what they are building.

In the case of NeXT, Steve wanted to build a computer that could put the power of the most advanced university facilities (not just computing power but books, laboratories, etc.) in every student’s dorm room. When things went sideways and compromises had to be made this objective was revisited and sacrifices were made only if they did not threaten this mission.

It’s heard in this video (and I’ve heard elsewhere as well) that if the company (NeXT) can’t reach this goal it should go out of business. Ultimate that is what happened.

It’s easy to criticize NeXT from a business perspective, but I prefer to criticize business instead. Had NeXT “succeed” (in business terms) it would have benefited the stockholders and perhaps the employees, but at the cost of the vision Steve had for the company and its computer. The resulting system would have done far less to improve the lives of the people who bought those computers, and in turn the people who would benefit from the work of those who bought the computers.

But what if business would have been compromised instead? What if instead of judging innovation in terms of profit and loss it were judged in its value to improve the lives of people and the planet? Clearly the objectives that NeXT set out to achieve could have (and to some degree did) make a dramatic improvement to the lives of many people, both directly and indirectly. It’s not hard to imagine that computers would have been more useful if every university student (and later, every student) had access to NeXT workstations (and the advanced programming tools that shipped with them) instead of Windows 3.11 or System 6 Macintoshes.

After all, the World Wide Web you’re using to read this post was created on a NeXT by just such a person.

If we are truly interested in progress, instead of recounting the business failures of technology companies, instead of searching for a way to make the development of technology compatible with business success, we should be finding a way to make business support technological breakthroughs.

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