NeXT and the Single Guy

John Perry Barlow

I am one of those eccentric loners who used to think that the NeXT was a personal computer. For a while, this was not such a peculiar notion. My NeXT did everything my Mac did except crash five times a day. And it did it, moreover, with far greater speed, elegance, integration, and style. Also, despite the tunnel vision of the mainstream press, it seemed to me that there was plenty of software to support my diverse digital endeavors.

My Cube was deficient only in its tendency to further bloat my already regrettable sense of superiority.

Then, several months back, I moved into a migratory phase during which I kept down what I could carry. I boxed my Cube, sent it back to Wyoming, and took up full-time cerebral residence in my PowerBook. Like Moses, I was on the road longer than expected. Only this week (in early October) did I again see the Dock icons blossom along the edge of a black frame. But now everything else is different.

For one thing, now that NeXT is a software company, my beautiful NeXT is something of a black elephant. I'm hanging onto it (these babies are going to be the Duesenbergs of antique computerdom some day), but its software seems stranded in space. It's hard to believe that many of the struggling NEXTSTEP developers are going to put much energy into upgrading their Motorola software now that there's a permanent lid on the (small) number of units in their market.

In fact, many shrinkwrappers aren't going to be putting their energy into anything NeXT-related. Two of the mainstays, AppSoft and RightBrain, have packed it in, while others seem to be cutting back. If the future for the people who write general productivity apps is dim, what does that say for the future of the people who use them?

In the Beige New World, there may be very little that NEXTSTEP offers a single guy, unless he happens to be the MIS director of a futures brokerage. It's all objects as far as the eye can see. Where, for example, is a word processor in all this? Even though I'm fairly nerdy for a former cowman, I'm not going to try and roll my own word processor out of some piece of ObjectWare.

When NeXT woke up and realized than the only gal who'd dance with 'em was the custom-apps market, I asked Steve Jobs what this meant for the commercial developer. He insisted that once the platform gained ground under dedicated in-house systems, a larger market would develop for general-purpose NEXTSTEP software. In the long run, he may be right. At the moment though, the tide's still going out.

Software is not the only problem a solitary NEXTSTEP diehard faces. From what I hear, unless you've got a lot of time to dink with hardware debugging, these soulless new machines may undo you. (As I was finishing this column, the ace wireheads at NeXTWORLD finally delivered a loaner PC for me to use. I'll report on my experiences in future columns.)

I go on believing that NEXTSTEP has a future. I even believe there's a chance that Apple and IBM might swallow real hard and turn to NeXT after Taligent has failed to produce anything usable. (Their alternative, after all, would be Microsoft.) I'm just beginning to wonder if it is a future that will be of any interest to single guys like me.

John Perry Barlow, the Helen Gurley Brown of the NeXT world, appears in this space every issue.