THE NeXT WORLD

Stuff of Dreams

Dan Ruby

I returned to NeXT's Fremont factory for the last time one sunny morning in September. This time, there was no humming assembly line, no engineers meeting in handsome conference rooms, no superlatives about state-of-the-art automation.

Instead, 715 lots of items were stacked neatly on the spotless cement floor. Everything from pick-and-place robots and wave-solder machines to top-quality Herman Miller office furniture to paper shredders and trash cans. Also, row after row of NeXTcubes, MegaPixel Displays, Color Printers, and CD-ROM drives.

The scene was a sale by the Ross-Dove Company, auctioneers to Silicon Valley, to dispose of an asset that was once NeXT's pride and joy. Roaming the preview areas were several hundred used-equipment and furniture dealers, professional salvagers, NeXT community old-timers, and assorted curiosity seekers. A contingent of former NeXT factory managers and design engineers, including hardware guru Rich Page, was back for one last look at faded glory.

I wandered through the offices, reception area, and cafeteria, all still fully fixtured but with each item tagged with a lot number. Upstairs in the main conference room, the whiteboard still displayed the scribblings of meetings past, including the words: "Make Better Stuff." It was as if the room was left intact after some catastrophe wiped out the inhabitants. In fact, that is pretty much what did happen. Six months later, I mused, we'd come back to inter the remains.

By late morning, as the auctioneers hit their pace, my gloom began to lift. The catalog did not read "liquidation sale" or some similar death notice. This was not a forced sale by a bankruptcy administrator raising pennies on the dollar for creditors. No, this was a sale to dispose of "surplus assets to on-going software operations."

Not a funeral after all, just a day to raise some cash and tidy up loose ends. The point was evident in the prices bid for NeXT computers and peripherals. To the dismay of the bargain hunters, prices for black hardware held up above typical resale value. Why? Black hardware remains in demand because NEXTSTEP software is a viable business. Not to mention that it is still better than any white hardware on the market.

In the end, I'm not sure the auction of NeXT's factory has much meaning just a footnote, perhaps, in computer-industry history. By now it is pretty clear that NeXT hardware never had a chance. It wasn't a matter of making better stuff. The stuff was plenty good; it just wasn't cheap enough or standard enough. Besides, the factory was always overkill, with far more capacity than demand.

Meanwhile, NEXTSTEP sales are far stronger today than when the factory was in full swing. More customers and more industry players take NeXT seriously now than at the beginning of this year. Sometimes you have to cut off a limb to save a life.

The crowd had thinned by the time the last lot, seven NeXTcubes, was auctioned off around 3:00 p.m. In another week or two, after the winning bidders had claimed their stuff and NeXT's facilities crew had stripped down the company logo from the building exterior, nothing would be left but the empty hulk of a factory building with a For Lease sign hanging out front.

Dan Ruby is NeXTWORLD's editor in chief.