Will the magic work yet a third time for computer marketing whiz Steve Jobs?
After bringing the world two of its most popular personal computers, the Apple II and the Macintosh, the co-founder and former chairman of Apple Computer has been crisscrossing the country trying to win support and customers for his latest creation, the Next computer.
Although Jobs and his lieutenants are loath to acknowledge it, their task is enormous and the outcome is far from certain.
Seven months after its unveiling to a hand-picked, standing-room-only crowd in San Francisco's symphony hall, the Next computer remains incomplete and behind schedule. It is still not for sale to the general public, it can perform few useful and routine office tasks and it has no ready-made market awaiting its arrival. Indeed, even upstart Next Inc.'s announcement of a $100-million marketing arrangement with Businessland nearly two months ago was viewed in some quarters as a sign of weakness, an admission by Jobs that he could not succeed by sticking to his original plan to exclusively serve the higher-education market.
Despite the considerable remaining hurdles, the sleek, black Next cube does have one asset no other computer available today has: charismatic 34-year-old Steven P. Jobs himself, a natural at hyping high tech.
"If his name weren't Steve Jobs, the task he faces would be impossible," says one software publisher. "Because of who he is, Next has a fighting chance."
A lot is riding on Jobs' venture. On the line are his reputation and personal fortune--Jobs has invested at least $12 million of his own money in the project. Beyond that, there is the issue of whether an entirely new computer system, with its own unique way of handling data, can find a place in a maturing market dominated by big-name manufacturers that are not about to be dazzled by Jobs' computer.
Then again, Jobs has succeeded at this before.
The Apple II, which he fashioned with former partner Steve Wozniak, created the whole notion of a personal computer industry in 1977 at a time few even saw the necessity for these machines. Seven years later, Jobs spearheaded the design and introduction of the Macintosh, a machine that blazed new ground in computer graphics and easy-to-use operations.
Some in the computer industry believe the Next machine is yet another in Jobs' pioneering efforts and already are lining up to see, and buy, it.
"There are enough people interested in what Jobs does that he can spend the next year or two just selling to curious tekkies, researchers and software developers. And that may be enough to get the ball rolling," says Paul Cubbage, an analyst at Dataquest, a San Jose technology market research firm.
Jobs, intense and brash, is trying to capitalize on the excitement he's created as he presses independent software writers and corporate computer researchers to turn their talents to developing programs that exploit the futuristic features of his system. Among the most advanced pieces of the Next machine are two proprietary chips that speed the flow of data, an erasable optical disk for data storage, a compact-disc quality sound system and, perhaps most important, an integrated internal software system that allows average users--not just computer programmers--to construct their own personal programs.
Several important software developers, such as Lotus Development and Ashton-Tate, have agreed to write programs for the Next machine, but the first of these will not be available until late this year, and even then, these initial efforts are likely to be rewrites of existing programs and not new applications that take advantage of Next's advanced data, graphics and sound-processing capabilities.
While he waits for the programs to trickle in--and prods his software engineers, who are already about two or three months behind schedule, to complete the machine's internal code--Jobs is wasting no opportunity to promote his machine.
For someone who is not terribly comfortable pressing the flesh, Jobs has made a remarkable number of public appearances at conventions, trade shows and other, smaller events. Still, he picks and chooses his events carefully and, according to associates, has declined all requests from reporters for interviews since the computer unveiling extravaganza last October.
"Steve's in a marketing mode," says one company insider.
Adds Richard Shaffer, editor of Technologic Computer Letter: "Steve is trying to create enough irrational desire to keep the company going until the real applications arrive. He's buying time by creating the excitement that bigger, better-financed companies wished they had. To a large degree Steve is selling himself now."
All the same, analysts say they haven't forgotten that software is the most critical issue facing Jobs at this point. "This could be the best machine on the market," says one analyst. "But we don't know, and we can't know until the software is there to take advantage of it."
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