THE NEXT WORD

Petri Dish

Dan Ruby

The NeXT market is like an organism evolving in a petri dish. Here, a spore breaks out in a new market (health care) or a new application (custom apps). Elsewhere, cells fail to multiply for competitive (Sun, Taligent, Microsoft) or environmental (the national recession) reasons.

The goal is for the genetic material in the petri dish to reproduce rapidly, creating a teeming environment of businesses supplying products and services that benefit customers. People with good ideas are able to make money supporting the platform. Users thrive through the faster delivery and greater variety of technology. Everybody wins.

For this issue, we put a few laboratory probes in the petri dish. Our Special Report, "NeXT Market Mosaic," includes analysis of key market trends, a survey of NeXT usage patterns among NeXTWORLD Expo attendees, and a list of the 40 largest NeXT customer sites. This is the first of our planned annual studies of the NeXT marketplace.

The main conclusion of this year's report is that the NeXT culture is viable. While more nutrients are needed to accelerate growth, it is evident that the organism is stable and self-sufficient.

Of the many factors affecting the growth of the market organism, the most important is the nourishment provided by NeXT Computer itself. With its technology, NeXT provides a healthy medium for reproduction. With its marketing strategies, NeXT can promote rapid growth or, if unsuccessful, inhibit it. Let's take a look at how NeXT is nourishing the market.

I won't dwell on the custom-apps strategy. I have already written that I think it is a terrific move. NeXT has correctly recognized that its compelling sales advantage is in ease of programming. I would add that this strategy has not-so-positive ramifications for both third-party software and channel distribution. As NeXT pursues its custom-apps strategy with a direct sales force and an array of VARs, it must not neglect the kind of user who buys shrinkwrapped software and dreams of shopping at a NeXT emporium on Main Street.

If the custom-apps strategy is a positive message, then in this year of negative political campaigning NeXT has shown it can also take the low road. I like the fact that the company has identified its major competitor as Sun Microsystems. Head-to-head comparative marketing is the right thing to do, but some of the tactics employed have sunk into the mud.

Whatever else Sun might represent, it isn't Saddam Hussein. Okay, calling Sun "the mother of all competitors" was simply silly, but what about the NeXT Versus Sun: A World of Difference video? The video showed two programmers working on the same problem, one using NeXT development tools and the other using the Sun. Not surprisingly, the Sun programmer fails miserably, while the NeXT programmer not only finishes the work but adds all kinds of bells and whistles.

The problem with this tactic is that it lacks credibility. I can't imagine any customers who might have been sitting on the fence going for NeXT on the basis of this trumped-up test. The message is right on the money, but the execution is crude. A move I liked better was the Booz-Allen & Hamilton comparative study on NeXTstep versus other development environments. Of course, this too was not exactly nonpartisan: NeXT funded the research, although it had no role in the design or interpretation of the study. It's the same kind of thing Apple used to do so successfully to make its case for the Macintosh's ease of use. The results showed that extremely high percentages of programmers with experience in both Sun and NeXT development rated NeXTstep higher than other environments in five major quality measures.

To me, the Booz-Allen and Hamilton study was basic blocking and tackling, the kind of mature marketing that NeXT needs as it builds its case. I am also noticing a new maturity in some of the other ways that NeXT does business. In its early days, NeXT was known for its bunker mentality, controlling everything that went on around it. Information was jealously guarded. NeXT played favorites with its partners.

Now there are signs that NeXT is coming out of the bunker. One indication is the formation of various interest groups around the NeXT that are not directly controlled by NeXT. For example, the Association of NeXTstep Developers International, or ANDI, promises to advocate for NeXT partners in a way it could not if it were directly affiliated with NeXT. At one time, NeXT might have actively discouraged such a group; now it is supportive.

The NeXT Publishing Alliance is another interesting case. NeXT encouraged the creation of this organization of publishing and graphics developers. But rather than enforce a standard approach to documents, NeXT simply put the matter on the table and stood aside to allow individual developers to behave in their own interest.

The user-group community will be more influential and independent than ever under the umbrella of NeXT Organizations International, or NOIR. And an association of NeXT's largest customers, now in formation, could become immensely powerful. These and other organizations share NeXT's basic goals, but their first loyalties are with the needs of their own members. While we might expect some of these organizations to come into conflict with the mother ship over particular issues in the future, NeXT is wise to allow them to develop as independent entities.

NeXT now recognizes that it can't do it all. It acknowledges this when it says that its customers are "self-selecting." The same is true for NeXT developers and partners. People don't buy or support NeXT machines just because Steve gives a great demo. They do it because NeXT hardware and software solve real problems and provide real benefits.

As long as NeXT focuses on real problems and benefits, both in its technology and in its marketing, then there is every reason to believe that the next time NeXTWORLD dips its probes in NeXT's petri dish, the culture will be not just viable, but flourishing.

Dan Ruby is editor in chief of NeXTWORLD.