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In pursuit of building blocks and the Big Idea

When we think about building the future, we rarely stumble across the perfect path to do so on the first try. Often, we grasp at perceived futures — ways we expect our world to change and improve — but it's very seldom the best way to build our actual future.

This isn't an admonishment to never strive to create the next big thing; nor is it a bleakly worded yet heartfelt kick in the pants encouraging you to reach for the stars.

You should always reach for the stars and always strive to create the next big thing. But if you hope to succeed, your best guides are those who have gone before you — and failed.

The research kernel of NeXT

NeXT Computer was a big idea that failed.

Its original goal was to create powerful workstation class computers that, finally, incorporated the vision of the future Steve Jobs had seen at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center back in the early 80s.

Most people today abbreviate the center as Xerox PARC and know what it means. But it's important to remember what that acronym stands for: Palo Alto Research Center. Pure research in the heart of Silicon Valley, in the hands of a company founded in 1906, with its heart still in Rochester, New York.

NeXT planned to take all Xerox's good ideas and bring them to the rest of the world. Well, first "the world" would be educational institutions that could afford a few thousand bucks per computer, but ultimately, the plan was to bring this kind of advanced computing to the masses.

At the time, "advanced computing" meant a microkernel architecture, a UNIX personality, object-oriented frameworks, ubiquitous networking using the Internet Protocol, and a user interface that ensured that what you saw on the screen was what you got when you printed it out. It was a laudable goal.

But NeXT failed. By the time the product came to market, it was both too late and too expensive: Companies like Sun and SGI had already taken that market.

NeXT computers had little room to maneuver. The company eventually would become one that merely sold an operating system and a platform for deploying web applications before being bought by Apple — who, at the time, was even worse for the wear.

PostScript problems

Display PostScript was the technology behind the What You See Is What You Get display, along with the printing graphics pipeline on NeXT computers. As you might have guessed from the name, it used Adobe's PostScript graphics and rendering engine — but rather than using it for a laser printer, NeXT used it to display the screen.

Now, there a lot of problems with DPS, all of which contributed to its ultimate failure. For one, paying Adobe money for every computer or copy of an operating system you ship sucks. But the big issue was in the PostScript code: The underlying program was actually a full Turing Machine, which meant that one could write arbitrarily complex programs and they'd evaluate completely logically... even when you screwed up by writing an infinite loop and locked up your output devices.

But NeXT's implementation added an interesting spin on the program: Each app rendered within a window; once those windows had their contents they'd be fully insular and contained. In essence, a user could drag a program window over another non-responsive window without having to worry about that gaudy alert box stamping effect that Windows suffered from. By knowing what was under the alert box when the user moved the window, the computer could redraw its contents rather than asking the application to do so.

Despite this feature, however, Display PostScript went into the dust bin with Developer Preview 3 of Mac OS X. Instead, we got Quartz.

Multitouch mania

Jeff Han is probably best known for his TED Talk introducing multitouch gestures. His work pioneered many of the interactions we take for granted today: Pinch to zoom. Rotation. Multiple points of input rather than a simple mouse cursor.

It was revolutionary. But it also relied upon devices that were beyond the reach of consumers. His work was far from a failure — but neither was it a success.

Putting the pieces together

Looking at the examples above, we can pull out the following big ideas: Small kernel, UNIX personality, retained rendering of application content, multi-touch input.

Small kernel, UNIX personality, retained rendering of application content, multi-touch input.

Small, UNIX, retained rendering, multi-touch.

(Are you getting it yet?)

Steve Jobs announcing iPhone

Steve Jobs announcing iPhone (Image credit: Getty Images)

These three big failed ideas helped build a recipe for what we now know as one hugely imaginative idea: the iPhone.

NeXT's core frameworks helped build iOS's communication, while its UNIX Personality layer gave the mobile OS a window into the world of the Internet. Display PostScript's window rendering, paired with modern mobile graphics processors, allowed the iPhone's digital buttons to fade and slide with ease. And multi-touch — it was being able to implement multi-touch on a handheld device that brought these big ideas together.

The phone's success doesn't rest solely on these three features. There's far more to the process than picking three ideas that kind of failed and sticking them together. But without each of these failed attempts — and without someone recognizing the potential within those failures — we wouldn't have the iPhone as we know it today.

What can we learn from big ideas?

When we first dream up big ideas, far more often than not they result in abject failure. But if we're willing to reexamine those ideas after the fact, we can find much value in those missteps: Was the technology premature? In the intervening time, have we seen progress or a new avenue where that big idea could be addressed? Did that big idea fail because of cultural or technical reasons?

Ultimately, The big idea is what it says on the tin. It's a big idea. Cynicism has never served an optimist well.

Is this implementation going to be garbage? You can make pretty safe bets on that. But the big ideas, those that stick. They're mired in their time, immature technology and cultural acceptance. They deserve a nod and a mental note to re-examine them when the context changes. The key isn't the big idea. It's figuring out the context in which it succeeds.

Guy is a longtime game, Mac, and iOS developer. Napkin is the app he co-develops, Debug is the podcast he co-hosts, and is the website he writes at. Occasionally. You can find him on Twitter @gte.

  • Nothing personal, but this article is intellectual nonsense for the most part. It reads well and it's written well, but the ideas just don't stand up. In particular, the segment on NeXT treats it's financial "failure" as the same as the failure of it's ideas, which is just a blatant category mistake. It also cherry picks small segments of intensely complicated scenarios, calls them "successes" almost arbitrarily, identifies these same segments in another "successful" idea (which is actually a product and not an idea per se), and then attributes the success of that idea to those segments. None of this is actually supported by facts or by any argument in the article. It's just a kind of "you know what?" type statement that someone might make over a beer in a pub. It's a Homer Simpson explanation of life's workings, and about as deep.
  • This is a very short article - though I found it was intellectually honest. Yes it was simplified - certainly this is not a book or a 10,000+ word article. I thought the writer did a good job of "cherry picking".
  • "NeXT Computer was a big idea that failed." I would argue the apposite - Apple failed and NeXT saved Apples bacon. Technically Apple acquired NeXT but is was essentially a reverse-take-over. The NeXT leadership became Apple's leadership and OS X (and later iOS) was built off of OpenStep/NeXTStep.
  • +1.
    Was just about to post something similar, but yours is much more concise and eloquent.
  • I think Guy means to emphasize that NeXT was a "commercial failure" (in therms of sales and install base more than anything). I mean, it wasn't really going anywhere and was doing abysmally in practically all market segments. That is to say, until Apple bought them, NeXT wasn't a significant player in the industry.
  • Yes, NeXT Computer failed. By the time Apple bought NeXT, the black hardware was long gone, the white hardware was basically abandoned, OPENSTEP/OpenStep was going to be abandoned as Sun was going with Java, and NeXT retreated to become a WebObjects Enterprise commerce company. It is really an incredible incidence of serendipity how it all turned out with basically the core ideas of NeXTSTEP finding the right set of circumstances to be the engine that drive's Apple's iOS world: "The key isn't the big idea. It's figuring out the context in which it succeeds."
  • good points redfood. I would make the same argument, though NeXT was essentially a commerical failure - its technology is what powered Apple since the late 90's and allowed Apple to build a modern Macintosh style operating system and nimble enough to allow Apple to use the same kernel for its mobile/touch hardware. I do look at Apple's purchase of NeXT as a reverse takeover - since NeXT had the excellent technology to keep Apple alive, but in hindsight we know it did much more than that. I do like the point that NeXT was Steve Job's actual vision for the original "Mac" - though the writer said it differently. This also goes against all those troll who insist Apple simply "stole" the GUI from Xerox.