The Shirts Off Their Backs

Dan Ruby

The demise of two prominent NEXTSTEP software companies, RightBrain Software and Appsoft, has less to do with the general health of the NeXT market than with the companies' own strategic mistakes. Not to speak ill of the dearly departed, but both companies were at least partly responsible for their own problems. Sure, they might have prospered in a thriving market, but neither proved cunning enough to survive in an emerging market.

Three years ago, when Glenn Reid and Randy Adams were making plans to launch NEXTSTEP software companies, most observers saw the developing NeXT market in the tradition of software markets for platforms such as Macintosh and Windows. Both entrepreneurs established business plans based on the model of mass- market software sales to end users.

In the interim, for various reasons, NeXT's vision of its own market has changed to focus on in-house development. With that change came the collapse of NeXT's reseller channel and eventually the failure of its own hardware products.

All the companies in the NeXT food chain faced a choice: Rethink the business model and adapt to the new reality or slowly wither on the vine.

Many NeXT developers were prepared to go where NeXT led them, adapting their strategies to coincide with NeXT's target markets and distribution system. Others were not able or did not want to make the shift.

With a substantial venture-capital investment in its notion of a complete suite of productivity apps, Appsoft was poorly positioned to adapt, even if Adams had wanted to. The company's business model was based on mass distribution through indirect channels. Any scale-back in its sales volumes would never have produced the necessary revenues. One might question any number of decisions Appsoft made in its two-plus years of existence. But the truth is that it was probably doomed from the start.

RightBrain is a different case. With its conservative philosophy of bootstrapping new products from its own revenues, the company could have survived and even prospered by altering its focus from mainstream desktop publishing to corporate communications. But Reid wasn't interested in finding his place in the custom-applications market. He stubbornly stuck to the mainstream vision until reality forced him to pull the plug.

By folding now, just as NEXTSTEP is moving to customer sites at a vastly increased clip, both companies will miss the coming wave of third-party software sales. Fortunately, much of their code will make the transition. With technology sales to Anderson Financial and IT Solutions, RightBrain's code base will turn up in a variety of word processing, graphics, and ObjectWare products. Some of Appsoft's code may also see new life.

The companies that acquire these software assets will bear the fruit of seeds planted by RightBrain and Appsoft. By adapting the code meant for monolithic apps into extensible and modular programs that fit the needs of in-house developers, they will help design a new model of software development and distribution for object-oriented environments.

Meanwhile, for epitaphs, look no farther than the companies' own marketing T-shirts. Appsoft's shirt says,"Killer Apps. Software for the Way You Work." RightBrain's reads: "PasteUp. Yes It Will." As things turned out, it wasn't and it won't.

Dan Ruby is NeXTWORLD's editor in chief.