Barlow & Lavin

Screen Savers

Barlow: Among the items I've found lacking from the NeXT software suite is something I felt a little silly about wanting so badly: a screen saver. It wasn't that I thought NeXT's system of twilighting the monitor was improperly protecting my pixels from the heartbreak of burn-in I think computers need such goofiness to prevent being taken too seriously.

Suddenly, my wish has been granted in spades. In the course of the last several months, three different methods for making my computer dream have suddenly appeared. Besides displaying animations, each program also provides password-protected means of locking one's screen from the prying eyes of co-workers. This makes it possible to keep your endeavors secret without logging out.

Two of these are commercial products, LockScreen from RightBrain Software and PixelSaver from Pixelated Technologies. The third, BackSpace, a shareware program developed by NeXT employee Samuel Streeper, broke the ground for the category, having already spawned a slew of animated plug-ins or views. BackSpace is currently in limbo after NeXT protecting the turf for commercial developers instructed Streeper to remove BackSpace from the Internet archives.

LockScreen is the least whimsical of the bunch. Its icon is a bulldog and if it could talk it would say something like, "Keep your eyes off my screen, Buster!" One especially paranoid feature is its ability to log nefarious efforts to gain unauthorized access, including every password the miscreant tried. On the other hand, LockScreen contains my favorite of all the views I've seen: a screen saver that flings onto the screen random words from one of the NeXT's diction- aries. I use it whenever I need literary inspiration through free association. Unfortunately, LockScreen has no provision for plug-in modules.

PixelSaver admits a variety of plug-ins, including BackSpace views, PostScript files, and Scene movies such as those bundled with the NeXT. It can also run shell scripts and executables, all with full sound, color, and network capabilities. It can even run a screen saver over the login window (the others can't). Its screen locker is the friendliest of the three, enabling the unauthorized to receive and leave messages.

Still, I suppose my favorite remains BackSpace, and not merely because it's now a rogue program. I like its ability to run any of its views as screen backdrops hence the name. I like its open architecture, which will continue to inspire a great froth of goofy creativity.

My thumb is up for all of them, but it's especially upright for BackSpace.

Lavin: You're right, John, that NeXT's auto-dim feature has proven sufficient to prevent burn-in, but with the variety of screen lockers and screen savers now available there's no reason to rely on NeXT's dimmer.

Like you, I'm taken with the BackSpace views, and with the variety of options for PixelSaver. LockScreen puts its emphasis on security, which should not be overlooked as a function of these products. Besides, a somewhat-chagrined Glenn Reid will soon catch up in visual interest, I suspect.

You know, this is terrific three vendors in spirited competion. How do they compete? By supporting each other's formats. They all get a hearty thumbs up for their incredible spirit and good products.

Dock Extenders

Lavin: If the average PC user uses only two or three applications on a regular basis and the average Mac (or Windows) user eight or nine, then I predict the average NeXT user will have 20 apps in regular use within a few years. Some of these 20 apps will be big-ticket productivity programs; others will be small software utilities that allow users to customize their work environment to behave exactly as they like. To me, utilities are a key indicator of the health of a platform. Their appearance is a sign that the market has started to hit critical mass. That has certainly begun to happen on the NeXT, most recently in a rush of extenders for the Application Dock and File Viewer. First we had RightBrain Software spinning out Portfolio, a Shelf extender, and LaunchPad, a Dock extender, from its PasteUp page-layout work-in-progress. In February, Atherton Software began shipping Engage, a much flashier and yes engaging piece of software.

If I had written this three months ago, I would have been more excited about the RightBrain products. Both are fine implementations that do their jobs ably, but Engage (and its creator, the terminally hip Jayson Adams) seems to embody the heart and soul of the NeXT.

Engage is a multilevel icon holder that lets you arrange applications and documents in any way you want. On one level, you might place the icons related to a particular project horizontally across the screen. The same applications may appear in your app level arranged in two vertical rows like a double Dock. Since the icons are links to the real locations of the app, you can put things in both places with virtually no overhead.

At $99 list, Engage is a great buy for anyone, and basic usage is possible with just a little setup. But it is especially useful for those who like to tinker with their environment to get it just right.

I wish I could say the same for LaunchPad and Portfolio, but they are just not as interesting. Things are moving quickly in the NeXT community. It's a game of leapfrog, and right now RightBrain is the one that's been leaped.



Barlow: Come on, Dan, Jayson Adams isn't terminally hip. He's more substantial than that. He is, after all, the author of one of the most important programs on the NeXT, NewsGrazer. This elegant work makes the real stuff of cyberspace, Usenet news groups, available to mere mortals.

Glenn Reid is the exemplar of an interesting new hybrid I'm seeing around the NeXT, the well-dressed hacker. He and the rest and his colleagues at RightBrain have a pretty obvious sense of style and the importance of design. This was clearly in evidence in his first major NeXT product, TouchType. Very elegant. If it were a jacket, there'd be just the right amount of silk in the weave.

I'm not as impressed with RightBrain's utilities, though. Everything works okay but they seem like the sort of useful little widgets one would find in the Mac shareware archives. My thumb is sideways.

I've been using Engage a good deal, even though it isn't particularly intuitive and took a bit of learning to use. It goes as far as it can in addressing one of those NeXTstep areas where visual aesthetics won big over functionality. The Dock is about as form-follows-functional as a Liberace piano. Until NeXT fixes it, Jayson's program is about the best retrofit we can hope for.



NeXTstep '486

Lavin: Even though the implementation we saw at Expo was alpha, seeing NeXTstep running on a PC was a real trip. My first impressions: real fast and much nicer than expected. I was impressed with its solid handling, excellent ride, tight turns, and rack-and-pinion steering. Oops, I thought for a moment I was in a car magazine. I expected to see trashy colors and raw, fat bits. I expected compromises from the crisp NeXT icons and display. Instead, I was surprised to find that the interface was identical and the color, while not up to NeXT quality, was quite good. Believe it or not, NeXTstep '486 felt faster than native NeXT hardware. It must have been the 50MHz chip in the Dell.

So who will this benefit? It will help bring around the DOS/Windows base. Companies won't have to throw out existing computers. It provides an all-important second source (and then some) for NS hardware. And it's probably the fastest route to a NeXT notebook. It's not perfect, though. Users might expect to run DOS and Windows apps directly under NeXTstep, but they can't: They need to run an emulator or other special software. Also, a real heavy Intel-based machine is required. With a fast '486, loads of memory and disk, and a specialized JAWS graphics card, NeXTstep PCs are going to be expensive. You can get by with less, but probably won't want to. Still, my thumb is up surprised, but up.

Barlow: This is the right move for the wrong reasons. Such is the obduracy of corporate buying habits that many MIS guys will now go out and buy '486s so that the boys in the back room can upgrade from dBASE to NeXTstep for those mission-critical custom apps we're all so darned excited about. Never mind that the most cost-effective machine for running NeXTstep is the NeXT. Apparently, the NeXTstation just isn't ugly enough.

I would rather have seen them port to a really good piece of hardware, like SPARC. You might be right about the laptop, but again I wonder about the platform. I'm typing these words, with a grave sense of disloyalty, on a Mac PowerBook 170.


Barlow: The first time I ran Lotus 1-2-3 under SoftPC on my Mac, it felt to me like Old Tijuana on a party night. I expected some of the same cheap thrills from Executor-MSW, a program that, in its present state of development, runs Microsoft Word for the Mac under NeXTstep. No such luck. As Steve Jobs might say, "It just works!" One quickly forgets there's anything weird about it.

If fact, it works like crazy, producing what amounts to a Mac operating at 10 times the speed of an SE for processor-intensive operations like search and replace or long-document reformatting. Scrolling and other screen-oriented operations are less dazzling, not much quicker than a Mac II. But we can expect this to improve dramatically under NeXTstep 3.0's new bit-map object.

That Executor works at all is something of a miracle, considering the difficulty that Microsoft and Apple have had getting Word to run on Apple's '040 boxes. But what's even more remarkable is that a New Mexico Deadhead named Cliff Matthews is out there peddling what amounts to $80 Macintoshes and is still being allowed a happy, productive life by Apple legal.

They might actually let him be. Apple has much to gain strategically right now from the injection of Mac software into the UNIX world. In any case, they may have no choice. His careful software emulation of the Mac ROMs has been immaculate to the point of neurosis, and the few things that are problematic with Executor result from his legal meticulousness.

Executor's biggest shortcoming, its requirement that you restart the entire program when you switch Mac applications, results from Cliff's inability to find a legally safe substitute for the Finder. Once he has used this limited version to bootstrap his tiny company, Abacus Research and Design, into a survivable mode, he intends to release a more expensive and full-featured version that should run just about any Macintosh application.

I'm putting my money on Matthews. His promotional material and documentaton looks like it was designed by a total nerd. So, to its credit, does his software. It's an amazing accomplishment.

Lavin: My favorite thing about Executor is that it allows me to cross environment boundaries so easily. Some of my less-enlightened authors turn in copy on Microsoft Word floppy disks. Having a virtual Mac on my desk certainly saves me lots of effort in dealing with the unwashed masses.

Another favorite thing about Executor is that it will run a lot of other Macintosh programs besides Word. For me, that means instant access to the entire Mac library of games. Also terrific is being part of the Executor community. If you are a joiner, this is for you. An Executor owner can be on a very clubby mailing list and receive folksy free upgrades from Cliff that deliver exactly what he promises. Executor is a winner and so is the company, ARDI.

Both John Perry Barlow and Dan Lavin are recovering NeXTaholics. They fall off the wagon often. Send them e-mail at: and