Great Expectations

Commentary

I'm as committed as any other NeXT enthusiast to the prosperity of the platform. Before the euphoria of NeXTSTEP '486 takes hold, how-ever, I'd like to raise a concern: Will it differ enough, in a technical and marketing sense, from the NeXTSTEP of the past three years? If industrywide success is eluding NeXT because of inconsistent marketing and old questions about viability, these problems will be more acute on the Intel platform. Microsoft has established standards against which NeXT will now be compared.

NeXTSTEP's ability to stand up to Microsoft's Windows NT, as well as IBM's OS/2, Novell's UNIX, and Taligent's forthcoming OS, will rest on NeXT's effectiveness at educating buyers and selling its uniqueness. NeXT and its vendors must develop a marketing scheme aimed at handling the Intel platform as a whole rather than a sum of its parts. And it must have money behind it and happen well in advance of the introduction of NeXT-STEP '486.

There are real questions about the quality of NeXT products. Most observers agree that while the technology has continued to advance, it may no longer be significantly superior to competing environments. For the most part, NeXT developers have not benefited from one-upmanship among competing products, as they have often shipped buggy programs that are lacking in key features. NeXT buyers have tolerated this situation because they know that most of the developers are shipping products for the first time and lack the resources for adequate beta testing.

Then there is the matter of distribution. NeXT's current plan to continue limited distribution to integrators, VARs, and small dealers will hinder its success in the '486 market; hands-on demos of any popular PC OS and application can be had at most stores that resell computer-related products.

Potential NeXTSTEP '486 customers will also consider the support that NeXTSTEP developers can offer. Enthusiasts have settled for limited training and support from NeXT, its vendors, and resellers. This attitude on the part of customers will not endure in the Intel market, which has an abundance of such resources.

Regardless of NeXT's ability to raise sufficient capital to launch NeXT-STEP '486 as a viable OS, third-party developers will have a hard time financing the positioning of their products against applications put out by industry leaders such as Microsoft, Lotus, WordPerfect, Informix, Borland, Aldus, Adobe, and Quark. Very few of the NeXT companies can count on an annual revenue of more than $2 million. And the funding community has proven bearish on NeXT vendors.

One repercussion of undercapitalization may be that NeXT's core de-velopers are nudged out of the NeXT market or absorbed by well-funded PC companies waiting to migrate to the NeXT platform. Or they may suffer from indigestion: too much too soon. If NeXTSTEP '486 does well, most NeXT developers will have trouble supporting a user base that could grow from 2000 to 10,000 in a couple of fiscal quarters.

Finally, self-promotion will be a daunting task. Advertising and expo exhibit space in the NeXT-specific market is expensive enough. To make an impact in broader-based PC magazines and trade shows will require vastly bigger marketing budgets. It doesn't take Mathematica to figure out that NeXT and its developers will require significant capital to cultivate and maintain industry awareness in the Intel market.

With the NeXT community competing against the most entrenched software publishers in the computer industry, it's critical that a concise, coherent, and above all consistent plan stress the qualities only NeXT-STEP can boast: an environment capable of developing and deploying custom applications as easily as it runs packaged software.

This combination is NeXT's distinguishing advantage.

by Stephan Adams