Even worse, the perfection of the cube made it hard to manufacture. Most parts that are cast in molds have angles that are slightly greater than pure 90 degrees, so that it’s easier to get them out of the mold (just as it is easier to get a cake out of a pan that has angles slightly greater than 90 degrees). But Esslinger dictated, and Jobs enthusiastically agreed, that there would be no such “draft angles” that would ruin the purity and perfection of the cube. So the sides had to be produced separately, using molds that cost $650,000, at a specialty machine shop in Chicago. Jobs’s passion for perfection was out of control. When he noticed a tiny line in the chassis caused by the molds, something that any other computer maker would accept as unavoidable, he flew to Chicago and convinced the die caster to start over and do it perfectly. “Not a lot of die casters expect a celebrity to fly in,” noted one of the engineers. Jobs also had the company buy a $150,000 sanding machine to remove all lines where the mold faces met and insisted that the magnesium case be a matte black, which made it more susceptible to showing blemishes.
Jobs had always indulged his obsession that the unseen parts of a product should be crafted as beautifully as its façade, just as his father had taught him when they were building a fence. This too he took to extremes when he found himself unfettered at NeXT. He made sure that the screws inside the machine had expensive plating. He even insisted that the matte black finish be coated onto the inside of the cube’s case, even though only repairmen would see it.
Joe Nocera, then writing for Esquire, captured Jobs’s intensity at a NeXT staff meeting:
It’s not quite right to say that he is sitting through this staff meeting, because Jobs doesn’t sit through much of anything; one of the ways he dominates is through sheer movement. One moment he’s kneeling in his chair; the next minute he’s slouching in it; the next he has leaped out of his chair entirely and is scribbling on the blackboard directly behind him. He is full of mannerisms. He bites his nails. He stares with unnerving earnestness at whoever is speaking. His hands, which are slightly and inexplicably yellow, are in constant motion.
What particularly struck Nocera was Jobs’s “almost willful lack of tact.” It was more than just an inability to hide his opinions when others said something he thought dumb; it was a conscious readiness, even a perverse eagerness, to put people down, humiliate them, show he was smarter. When Dan’l Lewin handed out an organization chart, for example, Jobs rolled his eyes. “These charts are bullshit,” he interjected. Yet his moods still swung wildly, as at Apple. A finance person came into the meeting and Jobs lavished praise on him for a “really, really great job on this”; the previous day Jobs had told him, “This deal is crap.”
One of NeXT’s first ten employees was an interior designer for the company’s first headquarters, in Palo Alto. Even though Jobs had leased a building that was new and nicely designed, he had it completely gutted and rebuilt. Walls were replaced by glass, the carpets were replaced by light hardwood flooring. The process was repeated when NeXT moved to a bigger space in Redwood City in 1989. Even though the building was brand-new, Jobs insisted that the elevators be moved so that the entrance lobby would be more dramatic. As a centerpiece, Jobs commissioned I. M. Pei to design a grand staircase that seemed to float in the air. The contractor said it couldn’t be built. Jobs said it could, and it was. Years later Jobs would make such staircases a feature at Apple’s signature stores.
During the early months of NeXT, Jobs and Dan’l Lewin went on the road, often accompanied by a few colleagues, to visit campuses and solicit opinions. At Harvard they met with Mitch Kapor, the chairman of Lotus software, over dinner at Harvest restaurant. When Kapor began slathering butter on his bread, Jobs asked him, “Have you ever heard of serum cholesterol?” Kapor responded, “I’ll make you a deal. You stay away from commenting on my dietary habits, and I will stay away from the subject of your personality.” It was meant humorously, but as Kapor later commented, “Human relationships were not his strong suit.” Lotus agreed to write a spreadsheet program for the NeXT operating system.
Jobs wanted to bundle useful content with the machine, so Michael Hawley, one of the engineers, developed a digital dictionary. He learned that a friend of his at Oxford University Press had been involved in the typesetting of a new edition of Shakespeare’s works. That meant that there was probably a computer tape he could get his hands on and, if so, incorporate it into the NeXT’s memory. “So I called up Steve, and he said that would be awesome, and we flew over to Oxford together.” On a beautiful spring day in 1986, they met in the publishing house’s grand building in the heart of Oxford, where Jobs made an offer of $2,000 plus 74 cents for every computer sold in order to have the rights to Oxford’s edition of Shakespeare. “It will be all gravy to you,” he argued. “You will be ahead of the parade. It’s never been done before.” They agreed in principle and then went out to play skittles over beer at a nearby pub where Lord Byron used to drink. By the time it launched, the NeXT would also include a dictionary, a thesaurus, and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, making it one of the pioneers of the concept of searchable electronic books.
Instead of using off-the-shelf chips for the NeXT, Jobs had his engineers design custom ones that integrated a variety of functions on one chip. That would have been hard enough, but Jobs made it almost impossible by continually revising the functions he wanted it to do. After a year it became clear that this would be a major source of delay.
He also insisted on building his own fully automated and futuristic factory, just as he had for the Macintosh; he had not been chastened by that experience. This time too he made the same mistakes, only more excessively. Machines and robots were painted and repainted as he compulsively revised his color scheme. The walls were museum white, as they had been at the Macintosh factory, and there were $20,000 black leather chairs and a custom-made staircase, just as in the corporate headquarters. He insisted that the machinery on the 165-foot assembly line be configured to move the circuit boards from right to left as they got built, so that the process would look better to visitors who watched from the viewing gallery. Empty circuit boards were fed in at one end and twenty minutes later, untouched by humans, came out the other end as completed boards. The process followed the Japanese principle known as kanban, in which each machine performs its task only when the next machine is ready to receive another part.