NeXT, Steve Jobs and the History of the Dynamic Web

Reading stock exchange IPO prospectuses is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind when you want to learn something about computing history. This article by Hansen Hsu recently published on the blog of the Computer History Museum will convince you otherwise! In his article, Hansen discusses how NeXT, the company founded by Steve Jobs after he was ousted from Apple in the mid-1980s helped to shape the transition from a static to a dynamic web. His research is based on a draft S-1 filing for a potential NeXT IPO which was recently donated to the museum.

IPO prospectuses have a number of interesting properties for historians. A major one is that companies have to describe their products, the products of their competitors, the current technological and financial competitive landscape, risks and many other things. And the second thing that makes such documents interesting is that they have to be accurate, mustn’t leave out important facts and must stick as close to the truth as possible because otherwise the company can get sued if the stock price does not develop favorably and investors want their money back.

The NeXT draft IPO has 108 pages and reveals some interesting insights into the state of the Internet in 1996. In the document, NeXT states that most web pages were still static, i.e. there was no database and code running on web servers that assembled web pages on the fly. Yes, that’s how I remember the web in 1996. At the time I created my first web site which was hosted on a university Sun server and I created every page by hand.

At the time NeXT came out with ‘WebObjects’, an object oriented API to create web pages on the fly with information contained in a database. It seems they had quite some success with this as the prospectus lists a number of customers using it despite only launched earlier in 1996. WebObjects faded away over time because NeXT was bought by Apple, not for WebObjects but for their operating system, which would form the basis of MacOS X.

For more details, have a look at Hansen’s summary article and, if you want to know even more (e.g. how much Steve Jobs and other executives earned at NeXT), have a look at the PDF of the 108 page draft IPO document, which is available on the Computer History Museum’s website as well.