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NeXTSTEP Desktop
NeXTSTEP is the original object-oriented, multitasking operating system that NeXT Computer, Inc. developed to run on its proprietary NeXT computers (informally known as "black boxes"). NeXTSTEP 1.0 was released on 18 September 1989 after several previews starting in 1986, and the last release 3.3 in early 1995, by which time it ran not only on Motorola 68000 family processors (specifically the original black boxes), but also generic IBM compatible x86/Intel, Sun SPARC, and HP PA-RISC. About the time of the 3.2 release NeXT teamed up with Sun Microsystems to develop OpenStep, a cross-platform standard and implementation (for Sun Solaris, Microsoft Windows, and NeXT's version of the Mach kernel) based on NEXTSTEP 3.2.

The format of the name had many camel case variants, initially being NextStep, then NeXTstep, then NeXTSTEP, and became NEXTSTEP (all capitals) only at the end of its life. The format most commonly used by "insiders" is NeXTstep. The confusion continued after the release of the OpenStep standard, when NeXT released what was effectively an OpenStep-compliant version 4 of NeXTstep as OPENSTEP.

NeXTSTEP was a combination of several parts:

  • a Unix-like operating system based on the Mach kernel, plus source code from UC Berkeley's BSD Unix
  • Display PostScript and a windowing engine
  • the Objective-C language and runtime
  • an object-oriented application layer, including several "kits"
  • development tools for the OO layers

The key to NeXTSTEP's fame were the last three items. The toolkits offered incredible power, and were used to build all of the software on the machine. Distinctive features of the Objective-C language made the writing of applications with NeXTSTEP far easier than on many competing systems, and the system was often pointed to as a paragon of computer development, even a decade later.

NeXTSTEP's user interface was refined and consistent, and introduced the idea of the Dock, carried through OPENSTEP and into Mac OS X, and the Shelf. NeXTSTEP also created or was among the very first to sport a large number of other GUI concepts now common in other operating systems: 3D "chiseled" widgets, system-wide drag and drop of a wide range of objects beyond file icons, system-wide piped services, real-time scrolling and window dragging, properties dialog boxes ("inspectors"), window modification notices (such as the saved status of a file), etc. The system was among the first general-purpose user interfaces to handle publishing color standards, transparency, sophisticated sound and music processing (through a Motorola 56000 DSP), advanced graphics primitives, internationalization, and modern typography in a consistent manner across all applications.

Additional kits were added to the product line to make the system more attractive. This included Portable Distributed Objects (PDO), which allowed easy remote invocation, and Enterprise Objects Framework, a powerful object-relational database system. These kits made the system particularly interesting to custom application programmers, and NeXTSTEP had a long history in the financial programming community.

In early 1997 Apple Computer acquired NeXT, using the OpenStep operating system as the basis for Mac OS X. Mac OS X's OpenStep heritage can be seen in the Cocoa development environment, where the Objective-C library classes have "NS" prefixes. A free software implementation of the OpenStep standard, GNUstep, also exists.

The first web browser, WorldWideWeb, was developed on the NeXTSTEP platform. Some features and keyboard shortcuts now commonly found in web browsers can be traced to originally being native features of NeXTSTEP, which other web browsers for other operating systems later reimplemented as features of the browser itself. The basic layout options of HTML 1.0 and 2.0 are attributable to those features available in NeXT's Text class. The game Doom was also largely developed on NeXT machines, as was Macromedia FreeHand, the modern "Notebook" interface for Mathematica, and the advanced spreadsheet Lotus Improv.


This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.

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