Why the Next Computer Is Like the DeLorean Automobile
From the September 24, 1990 issue of Infoworld
The business history of PCs and workstations shares some remarkable parallels with that of the automobile. Both industries were defined by start-ups, and quickly grew into huge business establishments that reshaped our economic landscape and popular culture. The two industries even share a common mythology of innovation–one started in a barn, the other in a garage.
Silicon Valley today reminds me of Detroit two decades ago. Garage-based start-ups are scarcer than Tuckers, and a handful of corporate behemoths dominate the market. IBM is the General Motors of the business, selling safe but dull information land yachts to corporate fleet buyers, while Sun and Apple jockey for Ford’s slot. Consolidation is in the air, just as in Detroit after World War II.
The parallels inevitably lead to one disquieting question. Is the future of the workstation industry foreshadowed by Detroit’s recent past? I suspect that the fortunes of Next Computer and its new workstation offerings over the next few months will hint at an answer.
If computers were cars, Next’s original workstation would be a DeLorean. Both machines were built by renegades sharing a common vision. The Next would be for networks and knowledge yuppies what the DeLorean was for the interstate–a low-cost high-performance vehicle that was both practical and fun to drive. Not surprisingly, the two machines are eerily similar. Both came in only one color, and though both were designed for performance, what we most remember is how they looked.
As it turned out, few users would ever drive either the DeLorean or the Next cube. Both were years late in coming to market, and the delay cost each dearly. Competitors began catching up, and critical personnel departed for less stressful jobs. On paper, both machines were technological tours de force but compromises had to be made before the assembly lines could begin to roll them out. For example, the DeLorean Motor Co. abandoned air bags and a radical new body-forming system early on, and Next Inc. quickly soft-pedaled megapixel color on any future cubes. Though DeLorean sacrificed even more than Next, the result in both instances was impressive but short of revolutionary. DeLorean built a stainless-steel Lotus and Next delivered a pretty friendly but application-short workstation.
Worse still, the world stubbornly refused to conform to the visions behind both machines. The DeLorean was built for a gas-short, small-car future, but its toughest competition proved to be a redesigned mid-’80s Corvette gas hog. Next’s cube was an elegant but flawed solution dropped into a world happy to fumble with DOS and tolerate the user-viciousness of Unix on the computer equivalent of the Corvette, the Sun workstation.
There are many differences between DeLorean and Next, but one is particularly relevant here–DeLorean never got a second chance. Its management resorted to fraud and crime in a desperate attempt to survive. Buoyed with a $100 million investment from strategic partner Canon, Next is about to take its second shot with several machines likely to be more prosaic than the original cube. Next is betting its survival on a very non-DeLorean strategy that trades sheer innovation for a measure of coexistence with the workstation world as it is today.
Next may yet engineer its own failure, but even in failure, its efforts will help to answer a larger question–whether the industry has grown too big for a generously financed upstart with a vision to break into. If so, then I wonder where the new ideas will come from, for just as the failed DeLorean influenced sports-car design at GM, features introduced on Next’s original cube have shown up on computers from IBM, Sun, and Apple. Without upstarts, the computer establishment may very likely slip into a complacent Detroit-like sleep, and the rest of us will be much the worse for it.