Open and Shut

Nina Lytton

Poppycock!" When they tell you NeXT computers are proprietary, that's what you're supposed to say. At least that's what NeXT's fearless leader told the crowd at NeXTWORLD Expo.

Poppycock, indeed. Do Steve a favor and take my advice, not his. Sit down at your NeXTstation, call up the definition of the word "proprietary," and you will see that the selfsame machine and its software are indeed proprietary. But this is not a sin. UNIX and DOS are also proprietary systems. The UNIX System Laboratories and Microsoft own the intellectual property rights to these products and have the exclusive right to sell or license them.

Proprietary isn't the issue open versus closed is the issue. What Steve meant is that NeXTstep '486 represents another step up the continuum of benefits that open systems provide users and vendors. And it is an important step because NeXT stood, until now, in the "interoperability is enough" camp. The company met its customers' requirements for connectivity, file sharing, and database access but allowed no portability whatsoever. It insisted in tying applications developed with Interface Builder to a single OS and source of hardware.

The new benefit NeXTstep '486 delivers is source-level applications portability between hardware platforms with different architectures and from multiple sources. Competition between NeXT and Intel-based machines is a good thing for the customer. It's also good for NeXT because most organizations these days won't buy anything without a second source. NeXT's theoretical deal with IBM just didn't cut it. NeXTstep never even made it into the IBM product catalog.

Initially, cannibalization will be low because NeXT's strategy on the Intel platform is confined to the high end of the PC hardware market. In particular, the minimum recommended configuration of NeXTstep '486 requires 8MB of RAM for grayscale (16MB for color), a 120MB hard drive (400MB for the developer version), and a workstation-quality display (SuperVGA with resolution of at least 1024 by 768 pixels, which is roughly comparable to NeXT's screen resolution).

This is hardly the garden-variety '486-based machine. Early adopters of NeXTstep '486 will be buying new machines to run it on, workstation-class models with graphics on the motherboard. These machines will be priced in the $10,000 range, twice the price of the entry-level NeXTstation. Pricing won't matter to some customers, however. They'll figure they're reducing risk to the same level as buying software from a start-up with a pretty good track record.

In addition, it will be possible to soup up existing '486 machines to accommodate NeXTstep. It can run in grayscale mode with an existing SuperVGA graphics adapter that supports a 1024-by-768-pixel display. Color requires a new 16-bit EISA card; several should be available when NeXTstep '486 ships.

The point of all this for NeXT, at least initially, is to overcome the company's difficulty in getting past the proverbial short list. If the short list is limited to hardware only, NeXTstep '486 is not a problem. If the short list prescribes both hardware and software, then NeXT can argue that it has met the customer halfway. After development and acceptance testing have been completed on familiar Intel platforms, the purchasing department can evaluate the alternatives. It may be that NeXTstations are more cost effective than Intel-based machines; it may be that workstation-class PC prices will have eroded to match NeXT's prices.

Therefore, NeXTstep '486 is a sound tactical maneuver. I will promote Steve to strategist when he announces NeXTstep on another hardware architecture such as Sun's SPARC or HP's Precision. Fully decoupling NeXT's software business from its hardware business would mean taking on Microsoft the computerless computer company, as described in last July's Harvard Business Review at the high end of its product family. Three other major UNIX players are already in the race, but NeXT still has a chance. It is the only company I know that gets unsolicited testimonials from both end users and corporate MIS heads.

To succeed, NeXT will have to change its ways. Given that it cannot compete with Microsoft in playing Pied Piper to independent software vendors and will not compete with the UNIX-philes in zealous commitment to public and consensus standards, NeXT is positioning itself as foremost in productivity for developers and ease of use for end users. But this does not eliminate the customer need for interoperability. For NeXT to be even a respectable member of the interoperability camp, it needs to take off its blinders toward other vendors' efforts in multimedia mail and distributed object management. NeXT's own technology in these areas may be great, but it will have to support cross-platform standards if it expects to be a real player in interpersonal computing.

Despite Steve's NeXTWORLD Expo presentation, NeXT still displays an ambivalent attitude about standards. If there isn't a blindingly obvious standard, inventing one is not necessarily the best course. Vendors are gradually learning that collaboration in early phases saves time, money, and heartache. Will NeXT be willing to work proactively and collaboratively with the open-systems community in developing consensus-standards? To date, it has participated in the initial work on Display PostScript and UniCode, so there is some precedent. NeXT says it monitors consensus standards developments, but, as a 600-person company, has insufficient resources to participate. To me, this says more about NeXT's priorities than about its resource constraints.

In the past year, I have seen NeXT go from having a toe in the water of open systems to having a foot in the water. To really compete in the open-systems world, it is going to have to wade in waist deep. It can still innovate by building standout features on top of base-level standards. But it can only succeed in standing out from the crowd if it first fits in with it.

Nina Lytton is editor of the Open Systems Advisor newsletter.