Steve Jobs jumped back into the commercial computer market this week by announcing that his fast, high-powered Next workstation will be sold at retail stores nationwide.
"We've found that this machine is going to be the computer for the 1990s," said David Norman, president of Businessland Inc., which will exclusively distribute the Next Computer System at its 112 outlets.Businessland, which had $1.2 billion in sales last year, is the nation's biggest retailer for desktop computers for businesses. Industry members characterized the deal as a major coup for Jobs' 3-year-old company, founded after he was ousted as president of Apple Computer Inc. in 1985.
"In one fell swoop, Jobs has come up with a clean, high-quality, professional distribution network that is the envy of everyone. At the very least, it's a nice first move for a new company," said Wood Lotz, president of Michigan-based Absoft, which also unveiled its Next-compatible software.
The computer system - which includes an erasable optical-disk drive with storage compacity for 200,000 typewritten pages - will sell for $9,995. It was offered to universities for $6,500.
Since unveiling the sleek computer in a black-magnesium case six months ago, Jobs has maintained he would sell initially only to universities.
But at a glitzy news conference Thursday on an enclosed pier on San Francisco Bay, Jobs said school officials across the country encouraged him to get his system onto the retail market nearly a year earlier than he had planned.
"They told us they think we've got a revolutionary product, but they said we've got to get it out into a broader market so their students will see it when they get into the workplace after graduating," Jobs said.
The worldwide market for general purpose and technical workstations - high-powered desktop computers that range in cost from $8,000 to $80,000 - is estimated at $4 billion and growing rapidly. Such machines give desktop users vastly improved abilities over standard personal computers, particularly in visual displays, speed and mathematical calculations.
The market is expected to reach $20 billion by the early 1990s, and major semiconductor and computer manufacturers are jockeying for a share.
Analysts say Jobs' move is a big step toward carving out a major role for his company in the field of computers that use American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s Unix operating system software.
Jobs predicted the Next's Unix-based operating system will become standard in the industry because of its speed, power and versatility.
Analysts hailed the Businessland deal for giving Jobs' Palo Alto-based company greater visibility, speeding up development of software and dealing a blow to rival Sun Microsystems Inc., which also had been negotiating for distribution with Businessland.
"Next is now openly competing against players in the broad desktop marketplace, and I believe for that market they've created a machine that is extremely attractive," said Jonathan Seybold, a leading industry expert.
In response to some criticism there is comparatively little software available for the Next, Seybold said that should be expected from a machine on the leading edge of technology.
Jobs also announced software development is already under way at several companies, including Adobe Systems Inc., Lotus Development Corp. and Sybase Inc. Some 15 other companies demonstrated programs already written for the Next after the news conference.
The Next is Jobs' first product since he left Apple Computer Inc., which he co-founded in the 1970s in a garage.
Over the last three months, Jobs said 1,000 computers have been shipped from Next's fully robotic factory in Fremont, Calif., to more than 60 of the country's major universities.
Next also has trained more than 200 software writers on its operating system, Jobs said.