Jobs contends his second venture could become the latest billion-dollar computer company **TC

NEXT'S YEAR MAY FINALLY BE HERE

April 27, 1992|By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld | Tom Steinert-Threlkeld,Dallas Morning News

Dallas -- In baseball, the annual stumbling of the old Brooklyn Dodgers inspired the refrain, "Wait till next year."

In computing, the stumbling of Steve Jobs' second venture has led to similar refrains. The company admits its first products bombed and its second took off slowly. It almost seemed fitting that the company is named Next Inc.

But Next's year may finally be here.

"Next has a real opportunity to be the next billion-dollar computer company," said Mr. Jobs, who started Apple Computer Inc.

His latest optimism has some foundation. "Object-oriented programming," the fundamental advance of NextStep operating system, is hot currency in developing programs. Soon, NextStep will run on personal computers as well as workstations. And through a combination of price cuts and performance improvements, Next's sleek, black machines with large screens and easy-to-use features are picking up sales momentum.

Not bad for a company that many competitors left for dead as recently as last spring.

Next is the last of the start-from-a-clean-sheet computer

companies. That has given it an ability to think creatively and an inability to penetrate barriers erected by other companies that have dominated the market since he started Apple.

Although his venture is privately held, Mr. Jobs has released sales figures to stir interest. But even his figures haven't been heartening -- until recently.

Founded in 1985, Next did not ship its first machine until 1989. Revenues that year were a few million dollars. The pace has quickened. In 1990, sales reached $29 million, Next has said. In 1991, $128 million.

This year, vice president of marketing Michael Slade said sales should surpass $200 million. "This is a very important year for us," he said.

The year has started "above plan," the former Microsoft Corp. executive said. But $200 million is still a way off. Sales in the first three months are around $24 million, he said.

On March 17, Mr. Jobs announced Peter van Cuylenburg, a former Texas Instruments Inc. executive, had been hired as Next's chief operating officer.

Mr. Jobs is again sharing power at a computer company he founded with an experienced executive brought in from outside. At Apple, Mr. Jobs brought in former Pepsi executive John Sculley, only to be pushed out the door later by his president.

This time, Mr. Jobs still owns half of Next, making him essentially impregnable against any ouster bid.

And, as Mr. Jobs says, the biggest safeguard against a power grab, "is that Peter van Cuylenburg is not John Sculley."

Mr. Van Cuylenburg is an executive who is used to holding power and sharing power. Most recently, he was chief executive officer of Mercury Communications, a $2 billion unit of Britain's Cable and Wireless PLC. Before that, he was a member of the "office of the president" at Texas Instruments' computer business.

At Next, Mr. van Cuylenburg re-enters an "office of the president," which also will be occupied by Mr. Jobs. All Next vice presidents will report to this two-man office.

Mr. Van Cuylenburg says he will focus on the mechanics of marketing and distributing Next products. Mr. Jobs says he will develop new technology, long his favorite aspect.

Mr. Van Cuylenburg should add stability. "I don't think [Jobs] would ever say he's the world's best day-to-day manager," Mr. Slade said. He expects Mr. van Cuylenburg to take the kind of effective but back seat role at Next that former Tandy Corp. executive Jon Shirley adopted as No. 2 to Bill Gates at Microsoft.

Next must overcome its missteps. "I think we paid dearly for our first product," said Mr. Jobs. Customers rejected the first Next machines, announced to much fanfare in 1988, citing price tags starting at $10,000, the lack of either color screens or floppy disk drives and the use of optical disk cartridges as the removable memory storage device.

Next's second group of machines started at half the price and included floppy drives and color screens, as well as the NextStep operating system.

In yet another analogy to his Apple experience, Mr. Jobs said the NextStep operating system will be the "Trojan horse" that will get Next machines widely dispersed.

In the case of the Macintosh, the "Trojan horse" was the emergence of desk-top publishing, for which it was particularly well-suited. In the NextStep case, corporate customers now can easily write their own programs.

NextStep allows developers to pick from a library of building blocks called objects to write programs. Objects for printing or sending items by fax can simply be plugged into a new program. This removes a big "bottleneck" in developing new applications, said Mr. Van Cuylenburg.

Object programming attracted International Business Machines Corp., which had said it would provide NextStep along with some of its workstations. That gave Next an early boost. But the link to IBM is dead, now that it has gone into a partnership with -- who else? -- Apple. One of that partnership's fundamental goals is to come up with object programming.

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