Hamlet and the NeXT Computer

I needed a new computer around 1990 - a usable one, not a Windoze machine, and sadly Linux had yet to be created - and so I began thinking about buying a brand-new, state-of-the-art NeXT. Never mind that I would have had to refinance my home in order to buy it; it was one of the most powerful systems available at the time, based on the remarkable Motorola 68040 microprocessor, and being an admitted and confessed (and, now, slowly recovering) computer geek I decided I simply had to have the latest in awe-inspiring technology lying around on my desk.

I could afford a small Mac. But I wanted a NeXT.

As much as I wanted it, however, having to refinance my home to purchase it was a daunting prospect. I found myself going back and forth between the two machines almost obsessively, caught between the sheer power of the one and the affordability of the other. I investigated both machines and made copious notes of the comparisons between the two. In time I found that I had written a description of my dilemma, using words which were not exactly my own.

Polonius  I hear him coming. Let's withdraw, my lord.


Hamlet    To buy a NeXT, or not to buy a NeXT, that is the question.
          Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
          The slings and arrows of mundane computer equipment,
          Or to take arms against a sea of Apples
          And by not buying end them. To buy a NeXT - to go into debt,
          No more, and by borrowing we say to end the heartache
          And the thousand natural shocks that inferior data processing
          Is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
          Devoutly to be wished. To buy a NeXT - to go into debt.
          To owe, perchance to be foreclosed - - aye, there's the rub!
          For in that debt to NeXT what payments may come
          When we have shuffled off this sensible-budget coil
          Must give us pause. There's the respect
          That makes popular cheap 68020-based machines....

Writing all this was entertaining. However, even after finishing the entire soliloquy from memory I felt no closer to an actual solution to the problem.

Feeling the need for more information, I called up NeXT's 1-800 number to request they send information about their machines. After several attempts to get through, I finally was able to leave my name and address. After I had waited patiently for a couple of weeks, called again, and waited patiently and called again a few more times, they eventually decided to mail me information and a price list - information which took so long to arrive that I looked at the postmark carefully to see if it had been sent Eighth Class, Special Handling, Mule Frieght.

I also subscribed to NeXTWorld, a magazine which declared itself the "only comprehensive source of news and information" about the NeXT. NeXTWorld was much quicker to reply, but for some mysterious reason known only to themselves they later decided they should renege on the original subscription terms... and charge me a dollar more per issue than it would have cost me at the newsstand.

This didn't strengthen my desire to buy a NeXT.

Hamlet    Fuck the NeXT anyway, I'll buy a Mac.
Horatio   How now, my lord?
Hamlet    Look you, Horatio, at these words. For Rosencrantz and
          Guildenstern hath gone with me to England, therein to make me
          pay $23.95 for four - but four - issues of NeXTWorld's
          utt'rances; yet would the lowly greengrocer sell me the same
          words for $19.80 plus sales tax. Something is rotten in
          NeXTWorld. And yet I could be bound in a nutshell and count
          myself ruler of infinite space, were it not that I get the
          same fucking treatment from NeXT's sales staff. There are
          more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than you can get
          from their fucking 800 number.
Horatio   Look there, my lord! Someone approaches.
Hamlet                                              Hie thee, Horatio.
          We'll acquaint ourselves against their apportions.


Claudius  And for another, let us say, three hundred units shall we
          dedicate to the financial-
Hamlet                                What, more sins commit?
          But now is judgement for your monstrous crimes!
Laertes   Ah! Ah! By the AK-47 I am touched.
Claudius  Ah! These bullets like daggers pierce my flesh.
Hamlet    Et tu, Stevie? Bite the bullet thou mustest.
S. Jobs                                                "Mustest"?
Hamlet    Feel you the hot tongue of the steel of Elsinore!
          Ah, he dies, Horatio!

NeXTWorld continued sending me invoices, and I continued to send them back along with letters and phonecalls saying they were incorrect. "Your invoice says that, 'As a charter subscriber, you are a very important person to us at NeXTWorld'," one letter quoted. "I would find this easier to believe if my first letter on this subject had not been completely ignored." I even started sending photocopies of their original subscription order card, just in case they'd forgotten what they looked like. They continued to ignore every communication I gave them, and so I finally phoned them up in disgust and cancelled the subscription.

On another front, NeXT had finally delivered information and a comprehensive price list. While I was still impressed with the quality of their machines, the ineptitude of the mailings had left a bad taste in my mouth. The idea of having to actually pay NeXT's fixed and unbending asking-prices was a sore and painful idea to begin with, but the sheer incompetence of NeXT's marketing and NeXTWorld's staff made the idea even more repulsive.

I found myself wondering if I should buy a computer at all. My other hobbies were beginning to sound increasingly appealing.

Hamlet    Get thee to a woodworking store! Wouldst thou be a
          breeder of computer geeks? I consider myself indifferent
          fun-loving, yet I could accuse myself of such geekish, nerdy,
          computer-lusting behaviour that it might be better if I'd
          never heard of programming.
Ophelia   Why dost thou stop, my lord?
Hamlet    I can't remember how the rest of the speech goes.

In spite of all this, however, the NeXT was still perilously appealing. The beauty and capability of the hardware were so great that they still held my attention, in spite of the best efforts of NeXT marketing and NeXTWorld to discourage me from buying one. My interest in the then-brand-new 68040-based machine refused to ebb.

Steve Jobs' creation refused to leave me alone.


Horatio   My lord, I think I saw him last night.
Hamlet    Who?
Horatio   My lord, Steve Jobs, the computer designer.
Hamlet    Importune me no further with this, whatever that means.
Horatio   No, really. He came to these fellows, Marcellus and Bernardo,
          and they then bade me accompany them on their watch. And at
          the hour of night, his figure came upon the battlements. We bade
          it speak, and it feigned as if it would, but then the morning
          cock didst announce the dawn, and he left.
Hamlet    You know, this is sounding less and less like Shakespeare all
          the time.
Horatio   If I couldst but find my copy o' the damned play, my lord, I'd
          work on it.
Hamlet    I would see this ghost.
Horatio   Well, you're in luck, my lord. There he is now.


Hamlet    What wouldst thou say? Speak, I'll go no further!
Ghost     I am thy computer designer's ghost,
          Doomed for a time to walk the night - -
Hamlet    Yeah, yeah, skip all that. What do you want?
Ghost     I want you to buy a computer you cannot afford.
Hamlet    Look you, I shotst thou full of holes
          With an AK-47 some fourteen pages ago.
Ghost     And thereby hangs a tale.
          Yet still I would suggest
          That a 68040 processor is worth your first mortgage.
          Thou needest a computer. Buy one! It hast
          NeXTStep, and a thousand interface options
          That thou wouldst pray for on other systems.
Hamlet    You're dead. I killed you. I didst reject
          The idea that I couldst afford your damn'd,
          Foul machinery.
          What a piece of work is a NeXT! How noble in processing!
          In design, in layout, how like a CRAY! In storage,
          How like an optical disk! In ease of use, how like a Mac!
          Yet all these fair things would I give up, because I haven't got
          A million zillion jillion dollars to pour into them.
Ghost     You'll be back. Here: here's a copy of our 800 number.

(Exit GHOST.)

I began investigating other options, such as a computer based on the INMOS/S.G.S. Thompson T-9000 (a terribly fast microprocessor built specifically for parallel, multiprocessor use). The machine itself was apparently very capable, but the documentation for it (particularly compared to Motorola's excellent manuals) left a lot to be desired.

But a new factor had entered the equation. Beryl, my girlfriend at the time, was working for a computer store in town that had just begun carrying the NeXT. The money I had saved in the bank, along with a surprising IRS refund and Beryl's employee discount, suddenly put me into the position where I could walk into the store and buy a NeXT that day if I chose to.


Hamlet    Write your T-9000 technical manual, I pray you, so that I could
          pronounce it to you, trippingly on the tongue. Nor do not mouth
          it full of useless asides, as Microsoft writers do, or I
          would as lief Bill Gates spoke the lines. And do not saw the
          air so much with your development system, thus, but use all
          gently; for in the torrent, tempest, and (as I may say)
          confusion of your manual, you must acquire and beget an overall
          view of the processor that will give it sensibility. Oh, it
          offends me to the soul to hear some engineer-lab-coated
          fellow tear a sentence to tatters, to very rags, to split the
          ears of the end-users, who (for the most part) are capable only
          of spreadsheets and video games. I would have such a fellow
          whipped for doing a Motorola manual. It out-Intels Intel.
          Pray you avoid it.
SGS Rep.  We warrant your honor.
Hamlet    Like hell you do. You didn't even provide an index on the thing,
          for God's sake. And there are a number of critical facts you've
          left out - - for example, how does your "Shift Left" instruction
          work? Which number is divided by which in "Divide"? What do you
          use for the condition in the "conditional jump"? And if it's the
          A-register, is it popped off the stack? Things like that.
SGS Rep.  If you just bought the development system, m'lord, you wouldn't
          need to know.
Hamlet    Spare me your development system! S'wounds, if I could afford
          your development system, I'd just buy a NeXT!
SGS Rep.  It's our job to sell development systems.
Hamlet    And what about the innovative experimenter? Is he too in need of
          your development system?
SGS Rep.  Of course he is. He can't do it himself because the
          documentation is inadequate.
Hamlet    Treachery! Out with it! How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!

(HAMLET slays every member of the INMOS/S.G.S. THOMPSON ACTING COMPANY.)

Hamlet    Thou wretched, rash, intruding fools, farewell!
          I took thee for engineers. Take thy fortune!
          Thou find'st to write inadequate documentation is some danger.

(Enter HORATIO.)

Horatio   My lord, what is it?
Hamlet    A bunch of dead INMOS representatives. I'd have put it
          differently, but I can't think of a Shakespearian way to
          say it. What bring'st you here?
Horatio   My lord, I am here to say you have twelve thousand dollars in
               the bank.
          The NeXT is within your reach. The only question
          Is if you would reach out your hand to take it.
Hamlet    Would I? I don't know anymore, Horatio. Though the
          NeXT is the most excellent machine at present,
          It is also the most costly machine,
          And it has ludicrous, useless, non-existent support.
          Yet the newest Mac, that venerable machine,
          Is now old and frail and pathetically slow,
          Yet at least one could purchase the Mac LC
          Without fear of drowning in one's own debt.
          Wouldst thou exchange this cost for that frailty?
          Oh, Horatio, if only I wouldst buy a woodworking shop
          And while away the happy hours at my craft...

Ironically, it was those staunch proponents of the NeXT at NeXTWorld magazine who ultimately helped me to make the decision. After several months of silence, they abruptly mailed me the latest copy of NeXTWorld along with a letter thanking me for my new (!) subscription request. The accompanying invoice indicated that they were finally willing to abide by the original subscription terms they had promised half a year earlier.

Needless to say, however, I was no longer interested.

In an effort to be polite I wrote several letters to mail back to them about the situation, but they all came out looking like this one:

...What the hell do you people do with your correspondence, anyway? Bury it? I would have thought that several letters and four months' worth of answering-time would have been sufficient to net me at least a reply. It seems, however, that only by cancelling my subscription could I get any attention... and even then your reply consisted only of preprinted postcards and invoices for a new subscription I didn't order.

By the way, while we're on the subject, by what unimaginable stretch of the intellect did you conclude that I wanted to renew the subscription I had so forcibly cancelled?...
I just didn't care enough to be angry any more, though, so I eventually dropped the letter idea entirely and simply telephoned them to cancel the new subscription. (The phonecall was positively cheerful. I was burned out of anger, and the woman who answered the call seemed to intuitively understand that even before I spoke. If they could have fired all the executives and put her in charge, maybe their organization would have been worth something.)

I suppose I should be thankful to NeXTWorld, in a way. They demonstrated with amazing clarity and force exactly how much good the NeXT would do for me. My decision was clear at last.

(A field south of Elsinore. Enter HAMLET and HORATIO.)

Horatio   But the situation remains, my lord, that the moment I finish
          off my speech about the ghost on the battlements I get hardly
          any decent dialogue. "'Tis so, my lord," "I don't know, my
          lord," "T'were true, m'lord," and so on.
Hamlet    I wouldn't give those lines to a dog.

(Enter ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN bearing documents.)

Guilden.  What! Ho! My lord.
Rosencr.  Ho! There, my lord!
Hamlet                        Their dialogue's worse than yours.
          My most excellent friends! Come, thou art welcome.
          But didst I think thou were both still in England,
          Bound by letters in earnest tone
          That wouldst cancel my interest in NeXTWorld.
Guilden.  And from there we bring you earnest reply.
          They have reconsidered, my lord. They are willing
          To meet their original subscription terms once more.
Hamlet    What! Only seven months too late?
Rosencr.  They send you this copy of NeXTWorld #4, along with
          These invoices and a postcard which states thew new terms.
Hamlet    And no apology, I see. Will you play this?

(Hands ROSENCRANTZ a recorder.)

Rosencr.  I can not, my lord.
Hamlet                        And you?
Guilden.                               My lord, I have not the art.
Hamlet    And yet you would play me; you would sound me from my lowest
          note to the top of my voice, yet you say you can not produce
          music from this, though it is full of most excellent sound.
          Mark you this, my friends: Though you may fret me, you
          cannot play upon me.
Rosencr.  We can play you for a sucker, m'lord.


Hamlet    For this relief much thanks.
Horatio   Anything to increase the size of my part, m'lord.

(Two CLOWNS enter and begin digging a grave.)

Hamlet    I think this decides it, Horatio. Here they lie, the
               incompetents o'
          NeXTWorld. The "only comprehensive source of news and
          Information" about NeXT computing, and they can't even settle
          Their own subscription offer. My point,
          Horatio: if NeXT's flagship periodical be so importune,
          Why, then; how capable is't their computer can be?
I. Clown  (Sings.)
               Oh, once I owned a fast machine,
                    As mighty as a CRAY;
               But only bought word processors
                    And games to while the day.
                                        (Throws out a skull.)
Hamlet    What knave is this? I'll speak to him. Here now, fellow;
          You sing songs of data processing and throw up skulls.
          Whose skull is this?
I. Clown                       'Tis Yorick's, the King's once jester.
Hamlet    This?
I. Clown        E'en that.
Hamlet                     Alas, poor Yorick!
          Never heard of him, Horatio.

(The CLOWNS unearth a coffin and raise it up.)

          And whose is this?
I. Clown                     'Tis the case of Steve Jobs, the computer
Hamlet    At last! Now comes the time, and the time well met. Throw back
          the lid, Horatio; lt us confront it, and end the madness. Come,
          to 't. No more! Speak, were ye man or daemon. Speak to 't!


S. Jobs   What's to speak of? 68040 processor. Sound capabilities.
          Mega-Pixel monitor. NeXTStep. Tons of bundled software. WriteNow
          word processor. Digital signal processor. A fully-integrated
          package. Let's face it, now: we've got a sale.
Hamlet    What's to speak of? No technical support. An Internet you can't
          provide access to. No expansion capabilities without a Cube.
          Huge price tags from all outside developers as they try to
          recoup their investment. No games! A keyboard that even
          NeXTWorld says is useless! Talk that you're going to drop the
          68040, leaving users to either update and rebuild their software
          or be abandoned! A support office that Steve Barlow says is
          harder to get than an audience with the Pope! A Digital Librarian
          which even Dan Lavin admits he can't find a good use for! No
          contact with the market except through NeXTWorld! The dropping
          of all the word processors from your bundled software! A NeXT
          800-number full of marketing people who take five months to
          send you a fucking price-list! Let's face it, now: we've
          got a loser!

(HAMLET pounds a stake through the undead heart of STEVE JOBS.)

          Well: that ought to do it.


Fortinbr. But will this truly end it? Guy Kawasaki once said that
          medicine will cure death and government will abolish taxes
          before Steve Jobs will fail.
Hamlet    But he just did fail. It's over. That's it. Let's go get that

(Exeunt. Curtain.)

Some of the bookshelves I built with the brand-new woodworking tools.

The Complete Text of William Shakespeare's Hamlet
A Short History Of The NeXT Computer / One Of NeXT's Rare Sales Brochures
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Next week: Bill Gates III.
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