Now that NeXT has exited the hardware business, its competitive advantage is sharply focused on the ease of object-oriented development under NEXTSTEP. That advantage is clear and easy to communicate but not necessarily a constant. Competitive systems from Microsoft and Taligent are targeted to match and perhaps leapfrog NEXTSTEP in the next few years.
What should NeXT do with its one- to two-year lead so it continues to enjoy a competitive advantage after the big boys ship their software?
Until now, NeXT has been playing the computer version of football's prevent defense. On the gridiron, you can sit on your lead by giving up ten yards a down but preventing a breakthrough play that scores a touchdown. It's not great football, but it is an effective way to run out the clock.
In the software industry, there's no clock. Sitting on your lead doesn't work. It didn't work for Apple when it enjoyed a five-year head start in graphical-user-interface design. Microsoft finally shipped a workable version of Windows, which, despite an inferior design, now outsells Macintosh by a wide margin.
It won't work for NEXTSTEP, either. To take advantage of its technology lead, NeXT has to either dominate the market so completely that competitors yield to it or keep its product moving forward so quickly that competitors will be unable to catch up. Right now, it is not doing either one. NEXTSTEP as it exists today is essentially the same product that shipped in 1988, built according to a vision enunciated in 1986.
Eventually, NEXTSTEP will be outstripped by its plodding competitors, unless NeXT exercises its vision and makes some quantum leaps. These advances could come as further refinements to the OS. For example, NeXT needs to complete its work on an object-oriented file system and ship it will before other system-software vendors offer their own implementations.
Unfortunately, history shows that NeXT does not excel at incremental improvement. With apologies to the gifted engineers in software, and for reasons often beyond their control, NeXT usually makes a great leap forward and then stalls. Look at Mail. The only difference between the original Mail and the current version are some icons. The same is true for NEXT- STEP's UNIX tools.
Where NeXT does excel is in taking complex technologies and put-ting a usable front on them. Now is the time for NeXT to be bold and ap-ply the advantages of NEXTSTEP to the problems and opportunities of the convergent future. ("Convergence" is jargon for the melding of telephony, television, and computers.) One can envision an extension of mission-critical applications that take you beyond the desktop and even off the computer as we know it.
I'm not suggesting that NeXT should take its eye off the ball. The vast majority of the company's efforts should go toward steady progress in the right direction. NeXT, however, should also work toward setting a grand blueprint for the far future, one that would keep the pressure on competitors while providing inspiration for employees, partners, and customers.
Whether it concentrates on grinding out yardage on the ground or goes for a long technology bomb, NeXT can maintain its competitive advantage. The one thing it must not do is play a prevent defense.
Dan Lavin comments on business issues in NeXT Ink.