The Object Game

Alex Cone likes to tell people that he is an "honest-to-goodness, dyed-in-the-wool rocket scientist." These days, though, it's Cone's ten years experience developing trading systems on Wall Street, rather than his short stint designing software for NASA's Space Shuttle, that he's banking on. As president and cofounder of Objective Technologies (OTI), Cone has become NeXT's de facto point man for custom apps. Cone has been instrumental in showing the financial giants how to slash their data-processing costs while improving their competitiveness.

"I go in and say 'Where do you spend all your money? The machines, the software, or the programmers?' " says Cone. The answer is always the same: Wages cost more than hardware and software combined.

In the world of high finance, where the ability to juggle numbers translates directly into competitive advantage, good programmers are able to command substantial salaries. If you can build the same apps in a fraction of the time or with a fraction of the staff, there's significant savings, maintains Cone. And any technology that promises to make these people five to ten times more productive gets a good, long look by senior management.

OTI hit the ground running on May 15, 1990, when Cone incorporated the company over the telephone on his way to meet with his first clients. Envisioned from the beginning, though, as a consulting-funded NeXTSTEP-product house, OTI found the going tough. After all, OTI wasn't just trying to sell itself. It also needed to sell its clients on NeXT.

"Most of NeXT's financial customers the first year were customers because we were there to help them succeed," says Cone. "We went on sales calls all over the country."

One successful sales technique was a computer bake-off. With OTI's first customer, a Wall Street trading firm, Cone lined up computers from NeXT, Digital, Sun, IBM, DataGeneral, and Hewlett-Packard. "They had all the people from various companies come in and build an application with lots of windows," recalls Cone. "The NeXT guy was done in five minutes. The DEC guy worked all through the night and still wasn't done the next morning."

While OTI's first year was spent mostly consulting, it didn't neglect its goal of producing shrinkwrapped software. Some of its first offerings were produced because clients needed products that were not commercially available, and the company did not want the expense and risk of having consultants build custom software. OTI struck deals by which the clients underwrote part of the development cost and OTI owned and marketed the resulting software.

OTI's specialty was building groups of software objects that could be loaded as palettes into NeXTSTEP's Interface Builder.

One of its first offerings was GraphPalette, which gives programmers a simple way to put graphs into their applications. Another was MathPalette, which links custom apps with Wolfram Research's Mathematica, giving NeXTSTEP programmers a simple way for solving complicated math problems. SmartFieldPalette and ChooserPalette build upon the NeXTSTEP AppKit, giving programmers more power and options.

Once a customer buys an OTI palette, there are no additional licensing fees for using the objects to build application programs.

Now OTI has started selling some of its source code to larger customers. "I've also had people come in and say, 'How much for the hard drives?' " meaning the company's entire library of source code, application development projects, and financial records jokes Eric Bergerson, OTI's managing director.

The company's newest products are OTProvide, which allows Improv users to build models based on data stored in relational data-bases, and SqlBuddy, an application that allows users to view and manip-ulate data stored in relational databases. OTI has also developed a "floating license server," to prevent software piracy, which will be incorporated into their products and which they hope to license to other NeXTSTEP developers.

Today OTI has six full-time people on staff, five of whom are programmers, and is looking to hire more. "We've been doing a lot of interviewing," says Cone.

by Simson Garfinkel