From Down Under to Everywhere

Global Developer

One of the hardest things about basing a software company in Australia is the time-zone difference. "New York is almost on the other side of the planet," says Brett Adam, director of marketing for Sydney-based Xedoc. It's not at all uncommon for Adam to go to sleep at 3 a.m. after working with a customer in California, only to be woken up by a call from the Big Apple just two hours later.

But Xedoc's way of doing business is also its mission. Its self-described motto of "NetInfo Everywhere" – bringing the system that NEXTSTEP uses to distribute user accounts, passwords, and other administrative information throughout a network onto machines from HP, Sun, DEC, and others – supports companies as they enter the age of global communications and WAN internetworking becomes the dominant means of communication.

Xedoc got its start five years ago, when three friends who met at a PostScript service bureau – Adams, J. Matthew Pryor, and Cameron Bromley – decided to create their own software company. "We swore a pact that we would never write an accounting system for someone because that would drive us insane," recalls Adams. Instead, they started looking for unusual, challenging jobs.

The company's first big contract was developing a database publishing system for printing corporate telephone directories. Although the system was first built on a Macintosh, it was soon moved over to Steve Jobs's fledgling NeXTcube to take advantage of the system's Display PostScript interpreter.

Back then, Xedoc's name was Codex, an archaic term meaning "book." Unfortunately, Codex is also a registered trademark of Motorola in most parts of the world (except Australia). Codex discovered the name conflict one day when a lawyer from Motorola called to say that the corporate giant was going to open an office in Australia. He told them that Codex would have to change its name. "We said ‘suck it,' – you'll have to buy the name from us," Adam remembers. Motorola opened its Australian office with the name "Motorola Codex."

Codex's next project was developing a distributed database for a law firm that wanted to distribute names and calendar information over the network. As they developed the specifications for the project, what they were trying to build wound up looking more and more like NeXT's NetInfo database.

"We knew about NetInfo, but NetInfo only ran on NeXT," Adam says. Codex's system had to be multiplatform. On a lark, Adam sent an e-mail message to NeXT saying, "We have this project here for which NetInfo would be ideal, but we have to have it running on other machines. Is there any way we could get the source code and port it?"

Adam's message coincided with repeated requests to NeXT from some of its largest customers, who wanted to be able to administer all of their workstations with the same set of tools. A few days later, Adam got a reply from Redwood City: "We were thinking of doing the same thing. Why don't we get you the source code?"

One of the first NeXT customers to get wind of the NetInfo port was an unnamed government agency near Washington, DC. A NeXT software engineer told Adam that he would be getting a telephone call from a person who ran a very large site with about a thousand Sun workstations. The engineer wouldn't tell Codex the name of the agency or last name of the person who was going to be calling. "He said, ‘It's the kind of client that if they told you the surname, they would have to kill you,' " Adam remembers.

And the firm still had its old problem with names. Codex wasn't allowed to operate under its own name in the United States because of Motorola's trademark. One night, the founders were staring at the company logo with a friend who was a graphic designer, trying to figure out what to do. The solution: flip the letters around. Xedoc was born.

Today, Xedoc's version of NetInfo is running on Sun, HP, IBM, and SGI work-stations at more than 50 of NeXT's largest customers, including Swiss Bank Corporation and Trident Data Systems. "Most of the large sites are either customers or are talking to us," Adam says.

Xedoc's NetInfo also plays a key role in NeXT's Portable Distributed Object strategy: The version of NetInfo running on HP Series 900 servers comes to HP by way of Australia.

In the meantime, Xedoc has grown to nine people and numerous part-time contractors. While consulting still accounts for nearly 60 percent of that figure, product sales are rapidly growing – with NetInfo accounting for 80 percent of that revenue. (The remainder is made up by a version of Apple Events that Xedoc sells for UNIX workstations.)

"We're growing very strongly," says Adam, adding that the company has "got a number of irons in the fire for large-scale NEXTSTEP development in this country." If those come through, Xedoc will be scouring the outback for NeXT-aware programmers. The company is also aggres-sively pursuing distributors around the world.

Although the company has toyed with the idea of opening a regional office in the United States, it consists right now of little more than a phone and an answering machine. Adam is certain that he doesn't want to move to America the Beautiful from Down Under.

"There's a lot more space here. People aren't as frenetic, and the pace of life is calmer." Most of all, he says, "the computer industry isn't all in one place. [In California,] it's incestuous as all hell. I've been to the valley, but I prefer to live here. It's easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond."

by Simson L. Garfinkel