Object Where?

Commentary

New technology needs a new business model. Look at the PC. Despite being saddled with the insufferable DOS, a draconian development environment, a somnolent corporate parent (IBM), a deficient architecture, and a laundry list of minor incompatibilities, it continues to be a spectacular success because the economics of personal computers, and their subversive spirit, are simply too compelling.

There is nothing in the personal-computing marketplace to remind the observer that a vibrant market for minicomputers and mainframes preceded it. The PC world made its own rules and built organizational, cultural, and technological solutions suited to its marketplace. Licensing and support were rethought. New distribution channels emerged. Teenage wunderkinds built empires. The PC culture did not ape the precepts of the mainframe, and, as a matter of fact, actively avoided them.

The NEXTSTEP community, in contrast, has failed to make a similar break with the past. Our applications suffer from the same feature bloat as monolithic DOS software, and few have APIs accessible to other developers. While these applications are generally of extraordinary quality, they have not helped NEXTSTEP reach the mythical levels of integration promised us by focused, interconnected component software, the hallmark of object-oriented operating systems. If Macintosh developers had ignored their primary competitive advantage the graphical user interface that platform, too, would have just 50,000 users.

Embracing component software is not a trivial exercise in an industry built to support horizontal, mass-market applications like the outrageously successful Microsoft Office. Rather than being shoehorned into the PC business model mastered in Redmond, the NEXTSTEP community must create the technical and organizational structures necessary to support a massive ObjectWare marketplace. ObjectWare Professionals Network (OPN) was founded to catalyze this very infrastructure.

OPN has engaged in an electronic discussion over the past few months, uniting users, systems integrators, consultants, and independent software vendors in a common forum in which concerns, experiences, and solutions can be shared. We intend to publish an array of standard protocols, thus provoking an explosion of front and back ends for each, much like the DBKit has spurred the creation of databases, report writers, and form builders.

But we have also unearthed a rat's nest of questions: How will end users take advantage of the bulging crop of objects? How will licensing and support work when users customize their environments with dozens of components from disparate vendors? Who will certify the purported standards-compliance of objects? Will customers purchase objects at Egghead?

By answering these questions, OPN and others interested in developing an object market will help lay the groundwork for NEXTSTEP's success, not by battling the PC on its own turf but by transforming the industry to deliver the promise of NEXTSTEP: a plug-and-play, mix-and-match user environment capable of supporting the unique objectives of any business or individual.

Marcos J. Polanco is director of ObjectWare Professionals Network (OPN). He can be reached at shiva@vega.stanford.edu. The OPN FTP site is netcom.com:/pub/opn.