I am not writing this column on a NeXT. In many ways, I wish I were. I miss its speed, its elegant totality as a working environment, and the hardy stoicism of its software.
Whatever its virtues, there's no way I could use a NeXT at this moment. I am (as I write this word) southbound on the 7th Avenue Express between Times Square and Soho. I am using a Macintosh PowerBook, the closest thing to the NeXT experience I could conjure in this nonstandard workplace.
Some will snort that a desire to write in the New York subway system is a mere perversity, and while it would hardly be the first time some harmless little pleasure of mine incited disapproval, I would say there's more going on here. Indeed, while it's an admittedly extreme case of it, I think that what I'm doing now may represent the future of digital work.
While the virtual world inside my NeXT may be lush, the physical environment, the place my body must go to get there, usually feels like a desert. Offices don't inspire. The Real World, on the other hand, can offer many a liberating whack upside the literary head.
Anyway, whatever the reason, owning a notebook computer and a fist phone has changed the way I approach infowork even more than my ascension from a Smith-Corona to a Compaq. Hot notebook sales demonstrate that a lot of others share this experience. Many even doubt the very future of desktop computing. If they're right, what does that say about the future of NeXT, which has no apparent plans to make so much as a luggable?
Well, I suppose NeXT might change its mind, but its product strategists seem pretty convinced that a six-pound, battery-operated NeXT is a technical challenge over which its gossamer-thin resources can't stretch. Which leaves only a few options to the NeXThead with dreams of true mobility.
First, of course, you can do nothing. You can stay chained to your desk, and cast upon the wild, free-roaming computists of your acquaintance the same baleful gaze you presently reserve for the rich, the beautiful, and Macarthur Foundation grant recipients Ð the same gaze DOS slaves once cast upon you and your NeXT.
Or you can pin your hopes on NeXTSTEP '486. When NeXT finally ships its Intel version, you can expect that Toshiba or Dell or Komputrz R Us will have a slick little plastic slab that will run it in some slightly cobbled-together fashion.
Or you can grit your teeth and do what I've done: get yourself a PowerBook. By this I don't mean abandoning your NeXT. It is possible, by some combination of determination, grace, and spit, to integrate the two pretty seamlessly. You don't get the best of both worlds, but you get something like the better half of both worlds.
Unfortunately, a full accounting of the process I've gone through to reach my current level of NeXT-to-PowerBook exchange transparency would sound a lot like techno-whining. After a year during which I've carried my PowerBook most all the time it wasn't broken (another long story), I conclude this: If NeXT wants a major stake in the future of computing and remains unwilling or unable to make a truly portable machine, it's going to have to work a lot harder on making its products open to interaction with other manufacturers' portables.
The future is on my lap (or, soon, in my pocket) Ð not on my desk. And we'll see where the future of NeXT lies.
John Perry Barlow appears in this space every issue.