Watch Steve Jobs Launch His Biggest Product Failure
Until the video below was discovered by researchers working on Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs, the only known recording of Jobs from his NeXT years was a PBS documentary called The Entrepreneurs that included footage from a 1985 offsite meeting shot shortly after Jobs was pushed out of Apple.
The new video—re-created out of a pair of VHS tapes only their owner knew existed—has none of the documentary’s production values. It’s too long (2.5 hours), too raw, and way too dark. But it will be treasured by computer historians for what it is: The only record, outside of contemporaneous journalists’ reports, of the gala unveiling of the NeXT computer in 1988.
What struck me, watching the two videos back to back, is how clear it should have been that the machine was doomed.
In the 1985 offsite, Jobs—always aware of the camera—is seen at a whiteboard trying to set the new company’s priorities: Was it more important to create a machine with great technology, meet a $3,000 price point, or have it ready by 1987?
Had NeXT met even two of those goals, it might have been a hit. But it wasn’t ready for limited release until 1989 and it started at $6,500—not including a $2,000 printer and a $2,000 external hard drive.
Former Fortune editor Brent Schlender, who attended the black-tie gala at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, called the NeXT “dazzling” and “relatively inexpensive” in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. He revisited the experience nearly three decades later in Becoming Steve Jobs (2015), co-written by Rick Tetzeli, whose chapter on NeXT is the best account in print of what Jobs did wrong and what he learned from his mistakes.
“The truth that all of us missed was that this was a machine that had virtually no chance to succeed in the market,” Schlender writes. “The principles on which NeXT had been based were in tatters, the goals if those long-gone offsite meeting trashed…
“The game was already over, but few of us knew it.”
Only some 50,000 NeXT computers were built before Jobs abandoned his beloved magnesium cube and concentrated on selling NeXT’s innovative software.
But the computer did manage to make a dent in the universe, most famously when Tim Berners-Lee used one to design the World Wide Web. The games Doom, Doom II, and Quake were also designed on NeXT machines. Some of its code probably still lives on today. Jobs sold NeXT’s operating system to Apple in the 1996 deal that brought him back to the company, and NeXT’s object-oriented software technology became the foundation on which OS X was built.
Here’s the new video, posted two weeks ago on YouTube:
Tom Frikker, the Tufts University freshman who restored the 28-year-old video for public release, described the process in an e-mail to Fortune:
“The stage lighting at the event was not optimal; all of the highlights and shadows were blown out. A timecode had been superimposed over the whole video. Worst of all, the tapes had been recorded over a speedboat video, with some parts missing and others repeated. After deleting the ‘garbage’ and removing duplicate sections with help from the timecode, I spliced the two tapes together and worked on color correction, lessing the over-saturated effect present in the stage scenes. Part way through the presentation, Steve showed the audience a video called ‘The Machine to build the Machines’, a short documentary on NeXT’s revolutionary factory. This video was missing from the tape, but I was able to locate a version and splice it in. Finally, all of the audio was cleaned, with most of the ever-present VHS hum reduced.”