A battle is brewing for the mainstream business-computing desktop. For the first time, mass-market personal computers have caught up with the speed and performance of low-end workstations, while workstations are newly competitive with PCs on price.
As hardware choices become increasingly irrelevant, the key differentiator in corporate environments will be system software. That's because the operating systems that have dominated business computing – DOS, Windows, and Macintosh – are underpowered for the enter-prisewide, client-server applications that corporate users are demanding.
Tapping the real power of industry-standard '486- or Pentium-based computers requires that PCs be equipped with an advanced operating system capable of managing simultaneous tasks and supporting complex networks. Coming from the workstation market, UNIX-based systems suppliers, including NeXT, have targeted the emerging market for PC-based advanced systems. Coming from the PC world, Microsoft, Novell, and Apple are evolving their operating systems to serve the same market.
The first shots will be fired this summer, as Microsoft, SunSoft, and NeXT each ship the first versions of advanced operating systems for Intel-based PCs.
Microsoft has also already ported NT to both the MIPS and Alpha RISC platforms – with more ports expected. That means that PC users will have an easy way to move to significantly faster computers in the next few years without having to change their applications or operating system.
Most systems vendors concede that Microsoft will be the dominant force in the advanced-systems market; the others are jockeying for position as the leading alternative to NT. NeXTSTEP for Intel has an opportunity to assume that role because of its advantages for object-oriented development. For all of NT's strengths, it doesn't begin to provide the object tools or libraries that are already fairly mature in NeXT-STEP. That won't come for Microsoft until a follow-up version of NT, code-named Cairo, brings object orien-tation to the Windows world in 1994 or later.
Relying heavily on the advantages of InterfaceBuilder and the Database Kit, NeXT is being priced, marketed, and sold, not as a general-purpose operating system, but as "the best object-oriented platform for writing and deploying client-server applications," says Brett Bachman, NeXT's director of software product marketing.
Meanwhile, the other contenders have their own strengths: IBM's much-maligned OS/2 has a sizable market share in corporate environments, with more than two million copies sold; SunSoft's Solaris 2.0 for Intel brings Sun's strength among technical users to the PC market; Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) has served the Intel-based world with Xenix and UNIX systems for the past decade, with more than a million copies installed; and Novell, a company with both the money and inclination to become Microsoft's archrival, recently purchased UNIX Systems Laboratories (USL) – and UNIX itself – from AT&T.
In the advanced-systems market, though, Microsoft may have squandered an opportunity by taking years to establish Windows as a standard graphical environment and even longer to provide multitasking and other UNIX-like features. "Microsoft took a very long time to make Windows work – seven years," says Paul Cubbage, a principal analyst at Dataquest. "They provided a wide-open window of opportunity for UNIX, and the UNIX folks have done nothing about it," Cubbage says.
Indeed, during those seven years, the UNIX community has fought and fractured, developing at least 13 different versions of the operating system and not less than four incompatible graphical user interfaces. "There are too many different UNIXes," says Don Babcock, vice-president for Timeline, which is developing an accounting package based upon Microsoft Access, Microsoft's new database product. "UNIX can't get its act together."
So the biggest strength of Windows NT may not be its technical merits, but the fact that it comes from a single supplier, in a single version. "NT is NT is NT. You don't have different flavors of NT," says David Price, a Windows NT manager at Digital Equipment Corporation.
Analysts expect Microsoft to come on with NT like a steamroller. Over the past few years, Microsoft – a company that earned $2.7 billion in fiscal year 1992 – has developed an operating system that will provide a multitasking, multithreaded, protected-mode operating system with sophisticated security capabilities. It will plug and play on most networks. It will run DOS and Windows programs. And it is portable.
While Microsoft has yet to announce any pricing for Windows NT, by the end of 1992 it had seeded the world with 38,000 copies of NT and the complete development system to any consultant willing to shell out a mere $79. In so doing, Microsoft has created an army of people trained in NT to develop applications, help new installations, and write purchase orders.
"The general marketplace is Microsoft's to lose. Microsoft has to screw up," says Cubbage.
Instead, NeXT is selling NeXTSTEP for Intel as an object-oriented development environment and run-time system for corporate desktops. "It's a better means to develop and deploy custom applications to automate business processes," Bachman says confidently. The power of NeXTSTEP, he adds, makes it easy to integrate custom-built applications with shrinkwrapped offerings.
Rather than compare NeXTSTEP to operating systems like NT, Bachman suggests comparing NeXT-STEP with other object-oriented application-development systems such as Galaxy, from Visix Software. Galaxy costs $9600 per developer on UNIX workstations, $7800 for Windows. Such systems typically offer object-oriented development tools, text objects, color pickers – all the stuff of NeXTSTEP. Bachman maintains that when they compare NeXTSTEP with those high-priced systems, corporate developers think that NeXT is practically giving away NeXTSTEP for free.
In many ways, giving NeXTSTEP away for free is what NeXT has been doing all along – the operating system came free when you bought NeXT's proprietary hardware. It's that proprietary hardware, NeXT now believes, that has been scaring customers away. Many large companies have "PC service organizations," explains Robert E. Lawton, program manager for NeXT-STEP for Intel. "They may have six people who do nothing more than put boards in machines" and tear them apart when they break down.
NeXTSTEP for Intel lets customers focus on the added value of NeXT's software, Lawton says, without having to worry about the difficulty of installing, upgrading, and servicing NeXT hardware.
Realizing that it must make NeXTSTEP for Intel attractive for both existing NeXT users and new customers, NeXT has also gone to great pains to minimize the hassles of operating in a mixed environment.
For example, NeXT modified the UNIX file system so that floppy disks and hard drives formatted on one kind of computer can be readily moved to another. NeXT has also pioneered fat binaries for storing executable code for several different microprocessors in a single file. This lets a large site have a single /LocalApps directory for both its black and white hardware.
And if NeXTSTEP is ported to a high-performance RISC workstation, it will already have the hooks built into the system for incorporating RISC machines into '486-based networks.
NeXT is also banking on the ability of NeXTSTEP for Intel to run DOS and Windows programs. NeXT plans to use a special '486-based version of Software Ventures' SoftPC Professional, which should make DOS and Windows programs running on a '486 run as fast as if they were on a 386-based computer (see "Windows Dressing"). The program will intercept Windows calls and map them directly to Display PostScript, which should speed performance considerably. NeXT also plans to integrate Microsoft's DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange) and OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) into NeXTSTEP's cut-and-paste system, for "seamless" Windows support.
Of course, NeXTSTEP isn't the only '486 operating system that is aiming for the Windows replacement market. IBM has always claimed that OS/2 can run Windows programs "better than Windows." SCO and Univel use Locus Merge, which simulates an entire PC in an X window. And SunSoft recently acquired a DOS/Windows emulator from Praxsys that is supposed to work similarly to SoftPC Professional.
But while the ability to run Windows programs is a requirement for any competitor to NT, it is not enough to convince customers to switch, says Terry Bennett, director of technical systems research at InfoCorp. If users want to run DOS and Windows programs, they'll stick with Windows and "and bite their nails waiting for NT."
"The software heritage for the general workgroup is all coming from DOS and Windows," says Bennett. "In order to look at UNIX, customers need to be looking at software that isn't available under DOS."
NT provides a reliable computing environment with memory protection, so that one application can't readily crash other applications running on the same computer. Like NeXTSTEP, NT is a multiuser system that provides for peer-to-peer networking and easy sharing of printers. NT even offers the promise of cheap laser printers with scalable fonts, thanks to Microsoft's TrueType technology, which has been adopted by many printer manufacturers. Microsoft also hopes NT will address the computer security needs of most of its users. The company boasts C2-level security, although that certification hasn't yet been awarded by the U.S. government.
Even without it, though, NT has features that NeXTSTEP lacks. For example, the system administrator can force or forbid users to change their passwords. One of the most impressive aspects of NT is the new NT file system (NTFS), which supports out of the box high-performance, fault-tolerant techniques such as disk mirroring, disk striping, and RAID. The NTFS can be restarted seconds after a system crash or power failure. The UNIX file system, on the other hand, must run through a file-checking pro-tocol after a crash – a process that can take an hour or more on large systems.
But NT is still relatively untested in the field – and new operating systems have a history of being difficult beasts to manage. Even though the early releases of NT appear stable, the industry is still waiting to see the finished product: Bugs have a way of creeping in at the end of the development cycle, and Microsoft does not have a good record of shipping system software on time.
Some analysts also think that NT might be too complex for ordinary users to master, while not offering enough features to make it the server hub of a busy LAN. After the initial offering, Microsoft might take the feedback and return to the lab to figure out what users really need.
"NT has to try to be all things to all people. Our sense is that it won't be before the mid-1990s that the NT OS begins to ship in volume," says George Weiss, an analyst with the Gartner Group, a Connecticut-based research firm.
SunSoft – Sun Microsystems' wholly-owned software subsidiary – is busy, like NeXT, porting its operating system from proprietary hardware to Intel '486–based PCs. Whereas NeXT stresses the advantage of its object-based environment, SunSoft stresses its adherence to industry standards. For example, all NeXT applications are built with the company's proprietary Application Kit; SunSoft ships Solaris with three different industry-standard tool kits for developing applications. "When you give the developer a single tool kit, you limit the developer," says a SunSoft representative.
SCO is selling a similar vision of standards-based computing. SCO boasts nearly ten years of experience delivering UNIX and UNIX-like operating systems for Intel processors, and it recently shipped its millionth system. The company's catalog lists more than 7000 applications. SCO's Xenix and UNIX operating systems support more than 800 different off-the-shelf peripherals. SCO is becoming even more competitive with its new Open Desktop environment, which combines X, Motif, NFS, TCP/IP, and Merge, a program which runs DOS programs in X windows.
Univel, with its parent company Novell's purchase of USL, is also making a play to become a serious '486 contender. The company's Unix-Ware operating system is a full release of USL's System V Release 4.2, integrated so that it can share files from Novell NetWare servers. Like the other vendors, Univel is targeting mission-critical custom applications at companies that are downsizing and turning to client-server computing, says a company spokesperson.
IBM is making a two-pronged attack with OS/2. Organizations with IBM mainframes have used OS/2 as a simple tool for building network clients, thanks to OS/2's built-in SNA (Systems Network Architecture) connectivity. Outside of traditional mainframe shops, OS/2 has made a mark as a server operating system itself, particularly with government clients.
Unlike NeXTSTEP, all other '486 operating systems will also run on '386-based computers (although Solaris requires that machines be equipped with a math coprocessor or disk-accelerator board). That's important for capturing the installed hardware base, as well as for allowing customers to field the lowest possible cost per seat. And all systems other than NeXT-STEP will display color graphics on standard VGA adaptors – they don't need expensive memory-mapped hardware, since X needs less bandwidth compared with Display PostScript.
For the '486 desktop, says Dichter, "there is only room in the market for a few big players." He sees Microsoft's competitors "converging and joining forces against Windows NT." As for NeXT, Dichter says, technical advantages may not be enough. "We've seen better operating systems get killed off by DOS."
That's why NeXT is careful to position its product as an OS designed to quickly develop object-oriented, client-server applications. While that strategy has been successful to a point, though, "It's spot successes," says the Gartner Group's George Weiss. "They have found companies that will love NeXT, that environment, and working with those tools."
These customers, says Weiss, don't care about being locked into proprietary tools: "They want an application up and running as fast as possible to gain a competitive advantage – even if they have to junk the system later on."
Thus, NeXT may be limiting its future opportunity if it positions NeXTSTEP only as an object-oriented development environment, warns Dataquest's Cubbage. "They are saying that they have a high-value niche market. They will live in that niche market as long as it takes their kind of power and their kind of software. However, the commonest kind of things I've seen in here [in the past six months] are products that look like InterfaceBuilder, and they're all designed for Windows."
Simson L. Garfinkel is a NeXTWORLD senior editor.