THE NEXT WORLD

Rising Tide

Dan Ruby

To appreciate how far ahead NeXT is in object technology, all you have to do is listen to the competition. The buzzwords mouthed by virtually every industry leader ease of programming, mission-critical applications, in-house development have a familiar ring. But while Sun postures, Taligent fiddles, and Microsoft dreams about true object-oriented systems, a fully mature NeXTSTEP 3.0 is set to ship. By the time NeXT has any serious competition, NeXTSTEP may be on version 5 and shipping on a variety of hardware platforms. NeXT holds, minimum, a three-year lead on the field.

It's the same advantage that Apple enjoyed in graphical user interfaces in the '80s. While the competition gamely fought to catch up, Apple took advantage of its acknowledged lead to sell millions of Macs to business users. Today, the whole computing world is using GUIs, and Macintosh is a powerful second standard in the gigantic PC market.

In five years, the whole computing world will be making the transition to object-oriented environments. Can NeXT ride that wave, as Apple did, to become a dominant player in this new market?

There is plenty of time and plenty of opportunity. If NeXT can merely hang on to a respectable minority share of the expanding market for object-oriented systems, the rising tide will lift it to business success. If it can go beyond that by setting the object standards that others will follow, NeXT could emerge as a market leader in the latter half of the 1990s.

To do that, the top priority for NeXT is to continue growing its own market. It's hard to find fault with Steve Jobs's contention in the interview in this issue that NeXTSTEP is the only environment with shipping objects (see "Re-inventing NeXT," page 30). A whole new market of third-party objects has grown up around NeXTSTEP. Now it must create the demand among corporate customers to use these products. As usual, that brings us back to sales and marketing.

NeXT now has its foot in the door of corporations on the strength of its development tools and organizational productivity message. Our article in this issue demonstrates how real-world business users are gaining competitive advantage today from custom applications developed under NeXT-STEP (see "Mission Control," page 34). But this is only the first step: To push open the door of corporate acceptance, NeXT has to extend the benefits of object technology to a broader slice of organizational users.

So far, we've seen the advantages of object technology mainly for developers. But object technology provides huge benefits for applications that are not necessarily mission-criticial.

Computing is all about information accessing it, analyzing it, communicating it. Just as NeXTSTEP is great for quickly building money-making programs, it is also ideal for customizing work environments for database access, group interaction, and visual communications.

Are these functions mission-critical? Maybe, if you extend the definition. In fact, almost any work environment can benefit from the site-customization enabled by object technology. Tailoring group applications to the specific needs of an organization is bound to make it more effective.

The potential payoff in such a strategy is huge. No longer are we talking about a small niche of corporate custom programmers. By promoting its object technology for system integration and workgroup collaboration, NeXT has a chance to compete for every business desktop.

NeXT tried once before to sell the benefits of integration and collaboration under the banner of 'interpersonal computing.' There was nothing wrong with that message, except that it was ahead of its time. Users couldn't comprehend the advantages of interpersonal computing, and NeXT wasn't yet in position to supply the tools to make it a reality. Now, with NeXTSTEP 3.0, a weightier bag of third-party objects and applications, and the credibility gained from competitors parroting NeXT's strategy, NeXT can come back with a refined marketing message that corpo- rate users will understand.

More old wine in a new bottle is publishing and graphics. The long-awaited arrival of powerful NeXTSTEP programs for page layout, image processing, illustration, and 3-D rendering will put a major focus on NeXT graphics by this fall. The NeXT publishing environment will also take advantage of object technology to permit software solutions customized to the needs of the user. The same thing applies to other familiar markets like financial modeling and document management.

There is the well-known disadvantage to being a pioneer, and NeXT has the arrows in the back to prove it. So, at one time, did Apple. Now, as the rest of the computing world lines up behind NeXT in promoting the benefits of object-oriented computing, we know that the groundwork laid during the last five years has not been in vain.

We in the NeXT community have a special perspective on the presidential campaign of Ross Perot. For one thing, we know that he encourages cultures that do not necessarily conform to his spit-and-polish personal style. We also share his interest in using technology to enable new forms of democracy.

As the third-largest owner of NeXT stock and a former board member, Perot is well known to NeXT users, and a lot of them are lining up to support the campaign. NeXT itself may be supplying computers to the national campaign, which in early June was just taking over from the individual state petition drives.

Recognizing that you probably don't turn to a computer magazine for political commentary, NeXTWORLD won't advise its readers how to vote in the upcoming election. But I can't resist sharing my excitement about the Perot campaign. There could be nothing better for NeXT, the computer industry, or the U.S. business climate as a whole than Ross Perot in the White House.

Dan Ruby is editor in chief of NeXTWORLD. He can be reached at druby@nextworld.com.