How NeXT Beat Be

And how Steve Jobs returned to Apple

Well before Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon existed, Bill Gates was still the CEO of Microsoft and Apple was about to go out of business. There were a lot of reasons for Microsoft’s dominance and Apple’s failings in the 90s, but a big one was that Apple’s operating system was old. Really old. So the company needed to build or buy a new one to catch up.

There were two obvious companies for Apple to buy, Be and NeXT. Be was fresh, fast, and had a cult following. This image might not look like much today, but at the time the OS’s design was seen as revolutionary.

In the other corner was NeXT. This screenshot looks pretty dull, especially compared with Be. But the technology powering NeXT was truly next-generation. If you use an iPhone or macOS computer, you’re still using designs and technology built from the innovations that NeXT pioneered. (And the world wide web was invented on a NeXT computer.)

The CEO of Apple at the time, Gil Amelio, needed to figure out which company’s technology to buy, and I love the story of how it happened. It’s recounted in Amelio’s book “On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple.”

Gil Amelio had been speaking with the CEOs of each company, and decided to have a shoot-out between them on December 10th, 1996. Steve Jobs showed up to pitch the virtues of NeXT and he came prepared with a presentation and his best engineer. Then Steve Jobs left, the board all nodded approvingly at each other, and the Be CEO went next. But he had no presentation. No pitch. His attitude amounted to “you know we’re the best, because we are the best.”

In hindsight, we can say that Steve Jobs had the better technology, connections, or charisma. We could believe he was simply fated to return to the company he founded and was fired from. But none of that was necessarily true on December 10th, 1996. It’s a simple story: one person prepared, the other didn’t. One person did their best to hear the concerns of the board, the other didn’t. One person tried to be easy to work with, the other didn’t.

There’s a lot to learn from here. This little story explains why NeXT beat Be, and why Apple didn’t go out of business. From there, we can see how iPhone was invented and was successful because it was based on NeXT technology. And that whole timeline was set into motion on December 10, 1996. All because Steve Jobs knew that great technology and design can’t speak for themselves. But listening and hard work can.

I love building things.

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