Interest in object technology is exploding. This year's ObjectWorld conference was 30 percent larger than last year's. According to a recent survey in Computerworld, 42 percent of major U.S. corporations are evaluating how object technology can benefit their enterprises. But implementation is lagging; only six percent have deployed object technology in production systems.
These statistics suggest an incredible opportunity: 36 percent of large U.S. companies are learning about the benefits of objects but apparently aren't impressed enough with the current offerings to use them in mission-critical systems. The first vendor to position object technology as a viable solution for the backlogs facing corporate MIS departments will find a receptive and educated audience.
Tools developers are paying attention to this trend. Almost every tools vendor at ObjectWorld had a forms designer styled after InterfaceBuilder and a multidatabase access layer like DBKit. Fortunately for NeXT, all contain flaws and omissions that will leave veteran NEXTSTEP developers underwhelmed. Only Smalltalk vendors seem to understand the importance of extensibility through palette-controlled custom objects.
Microsoft was missing in action, which makes me wonder how serious Bill Gates is about objects. Taligent contributed speakers to the conference sessions but had no presence on the Expo floor. That makes sense, considering Taligent doesn't have a shipping product and won't commit to a delivery date more specific than the "mid-'90s."
With the big names missing, no undisputed leaders have emerged. Every object-oriented database vendor claims to be No. 1 at something. C++ is the most widely used object-oriented language, but purists decry its lack of dynamic binding. NEXTSTEP is the leading object-oriented OS, but only because nothing else is shipping.
To solidify its claim to the leadership position in object technology, NeXT needs more than great technology; it also needs to re-establish business credibility. Earlier this year, I believed NeXT's business problems were near-fatal, but lately I have seen encouraging signs: new vice-presidents for sales and marketing; outside directors on the board; a new public-relations strategy; and hearty promotional pricing for NEXTSTEP.
Most importantly, NeXT has gathered a surprisingly large number of public allies, chief among them Hewlett-Packard. The Intel partners, Ingram, and systems integrators all provide broader access to customers than NeXT could achieve on its own. But only the HP deal sends a powerful signal about NeXT's viability. Portable Distributed Objects will ship fairly soon, but the PA-RISC port won't be available until the middle of next year. If HP believes NeXT will be around long enough to deliver, that's good enough for me.
HP also will insist that NeXT comply with industry standards, which should satisfy the skeptics who argue NeXT is too proprietary. HP, IBM, and Sun announced at ObjectWorld a partnership to define certain distributed-object standards; the HP-NeXT deal seems likely to bring NeXT into that fold. I have been told that the combined HP-NeXT engineering team will create the seminal implementation of some standards that now exist only on paper. NeXT should seize this opportunity to wire some of its proven technology, especially Objective-C, into the project.
Finally, HP will be a strong partner in penetrating NeXT's chosen strategic market, financial services. In no other industry are the time-to-market advantages of object-oriented application development so compelling. Success in this market will bring leveraging opportunities, because all businesses use financial services.
Many partisans are disappointed NeXT is not pursuing the mass market, but that would be a waste of resources. Object technology has not matured to the point of "must have" status for the masses. NeXT stands a much better chance of achieving long-term success if it spends the next year rebuilding its tarnished credibility and demonstrating the superiority of its object technology in one mainstream market. By that time, the competition will be hyping objects as if they invented them, and NeXT's proven leadership will be its most valuable asset.
Gregory H. Anderson is president of Anderson Financial Systems, a Springhouse, Pennsylvania-based developer of custom Wall Street trading applications. He can be reached at email@example.com.