Hot Tip: NEXTSTEP

Developer/consultant

Neil Greene has a hot tip for technology railbirds: For custom applications in businesses as diverse as medical practice and horse racing, take the odds on NEXTSTEP. Greene placed his own bet on NeXT's object-oriented operating system as a student and user- group leader at the University of Kentucky, and he has ridden it to success as a NEXTSTEP consultant, reseller, and software developer.

One unlikely place where he finished in the money is the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI), which is basing at least part of a national licensing system on Greene and his company, benchMark Developments. Based in Louisville, RCI is the central office of a confederation of roughly 60 racing jurisdictions around the world.

One of its most important functions is serving as a central clearinghouse of licensing information for nearly everyone who works at a track, from jockeys to concession workers.

People in the horse-racing world travel from circuit to circuit, and local officials need to confirm licenses granted in other jurisdictions and check for disciplinary actions, such as suspensions, that might apply.

Greene has put all of this information on a heavily laden NeXTcube with 40MB of memory and 3.5GB of storage. He manages the data through a suite of custom applications he developed, which integrate through DBKit to an Oracle database.

Maintaining the data is the first step; more difficult is the problem of making it readily available to officials at the local tracks. Currently, some jurisdictions around the world log into the system using a plain tty shell over Tymnet. Others use microfiche, based on printouts from the NeXT, as the data-distribution medium.

Greene finds that both solutions are ungainly and vary from place to place, causing duplication of efforts. Working with McKinnie Systems in Los Angeles, a provider of turnkey data systems for racetracks, Greene is developing a hardware and software solution that could yield a nationwide standard for license verification. In the plan, licensees will have an encrypted "smart card," resembling a credit card, with their identifying information and history. The card, developed by a small company in Israel that Greene brought into the deal, even stores fingerprint data.

McKinnie is building custom systems to use its smart cards and verify their contents in real time with Greene's system in Kentucky. The company has several NEXTSTEP-for-Intel systems on site, and Greene hopes that the operating system is chosen for the worldwide rollout.

Along with his work at RCI, Greene also has a company he founded with a few college buddies to resell NEXTSTEP and distribute third-party software. "We started benchMark because there was no one else in Kentucky handling NeXT products. We were all consultants for math sciences at the U. of Kentucky and started working with NEXTSTEP 0.8 in 1988," he says.

Along with partners Kevin Solly and J.T. Ice, Greene had used UNIX workstations and played around on Macs a lot. They started the user group KYNUG (Kentucky NeXT User Group) first but wanted to pump the product to people in a formal, professional manner as well. Forming a company seemed like the best course, so they did in September 1992.

Dealing in NeXT hardware, however, was less interesting than developing custom applications. The partners were relieved when black hardware was replaced by widely available Intel machines, because they could then concentrate on programming. Despite its change, benchMark remains the source for NeXT software in central Kentucky.

benchMark's biggest project is a medical-client workstation. After spending several years researching the record-management needs of doctors' offices, the company is developing a library of reusable objects that can be assembled in custom applications to meet the unique needs of individual practices. The company envisions patients carrying their records around with them on personal smart cards the same ones that Greene is implementing for RCI.

While working on the medical-client station, benchMark has joined with NeXT and KYNUG in presenting seminars around the nation on medical solutions using NEXTSTEP. When the medical-client station is ready, a core of potential customers will already be educated.

Meanwhile, the partners ran across a demo on the Net of an image-manipulation package. Although it's a shrinkwrapped application, it has uses in medicine because it handles large image files. The engine was good, they found, but the application built around it needed some work. They snared U.S. distribution rights, cleaned up the app, added an API to ease customization, and marketed it as TIFFany.

There is one common denominator in all of Greene's work at RCI, benchMark, and KYNUG NEXTSTEP. It may be starting off well back in the pack, but its superior technology provides the legs for a strong stretch run.

Hey railbirds, want another tip? Bet on Greene. He's only 27.

by Dan Lavin