These days, it's difficult telling the NeXT third-party community from a neighborhood in Sarajevo. Companies that were among the most promising of developers Ð RightBrain Software, Adamation, Appsoft Ð have been reduced to little more than empty offices with answering machines. Others have taken their wares to other platforms, like refugees seeking safer ground.
Over the past month, I've spoken with dozens of NEXTSTEP developers around the world. Most are saying the same thing: The last six months have been one long waiting game, which will be over once NeXT ships Release 3.2, Portable Distributed Objects, and the port to PA-RISC. If they can make it through the winter, they'll taste the sweet rewards next spring.
Well, yes, the NEXTSTEP marketplace is going to revive, but developers shouldn't expect it to return in the same form as it was in January 1992. It's going in a fundamentally new direction.
The successful NEXTSTEP developers of the future will be those who provide applications that developers at firms like Chrysler Financial and McCaw Cellular can easily incorporate into their own custom apps.
Some of the most successful third-party developers have been doing this all along. Take Athena Design's Mesa spreadsheet. Mesa's powerful API lets developers run the program from their own applications. They can stuff data into a Mesa spreadsheet, have the program perform calculations, and get results. Or they can use Mesa to generate reports from their own data. Or they can use Mesa's AddIn feature to supplement Mesa's built-in functions with their own custom analytics.
NeXT's distributed-object system makes it a cinch to add APIs to most NEXTSTEP applications. Even a simple API can really make a difference to an enterprising third-party or corporate developer. Take NeXT's own Mail program. It has an API that allows programmers to open Send windows; set the To, Subject, and Cc fields; set the body of the message; and programmatically click the Deliver button. That's how programs like NewsGrazer, DataPhile, Concurrence, and Pencil Me In open up a mail message to send in a bug report. The programmers who wrote those apps didn't have to waste their time reimplementing NeXTmail's Send window.
So where is the API that lets me open NewsGrazer to a particular article, programmatically add records to a DataPhile database, create presentations in Concurrence, or scan the appointments in a Pencil Me In calendar? They're all either missing, under development, or undocumented.
The same is true for NeXTmail's API, which lacks documentation. Likewise, I saw Steve Jobs demonstrate PasteUp's API once at a Seybold conference, but I never saw any mention of it in RightBrain's manuals.
I wonder how many other applications have secret, hidden API's, just waiting the be exploited. And how many more could have them if a developer had just spent a few extra hours at the keyboard?
Developers, get with it: Your current customers might ask if you have an API, but the ones you are losing are the ones who aren't even considering your programs, because they can't see how to mold it into the corporate future they're building. On the other hand, if you are prepared to work with your existing and prospective customers to make your application work in their environments, then there is a road out of Sarajevo.
Simson L. Garfinkel explores technology issues each month.