Break the Mold

Commentary

While native NEXTSTEP applications remain important to NeXT's large corporate customers, the playing field for NEXTSTEP ISVs (independent software vendors) has clearly changed now that Insignia Solutions' SoftPC provides a viable solution for running standard commercial applications under Windows. With this change in the market, ISVs must reexamine strategies that may have been successful in the world of NeXT proprietary hardware but may no longer be successful in the larger NEXTSTEP for Intel world or in the future OpenStep world.

When my company, Information Technology Solutions (ITS), started developing NEXTSTEP software in 1991, we saw an opportunity in the black-hardware market to provide basic productivity applications, which are commonly available in the PC and Windows world, as native NeXT applications. This strategy worked out well, allowing us to ship several useful (though not groundbreaking) commercial applications in 1992 and 1993. Now, I find that, instead of buying ITS's simple information organizer for NEXTSTEP, NeXT customers may rush out and buy some Windows application and use it under SoftPC.

Some NEXTSTEP ISVs are worried about the competition for customer dollars that will come from Windows applications. Instead, we look at the availability of these mainstream commercial applications as being absolutely critical to the success of our company because their availability is crucial to the success of NEXTSTEP. But how do we turn this potential threat into an opportunity?

Instead of viewing itself as a provider of useful productivity applications in a small market niche, a NEXTSTEP ISV must provide breakthrough ideas in software design, software packaging, and the concept of what makes up a commercial software package.

NEXTSTEP software must differentiate itself from the pack by leading the entire software industry in a new direction, rather than by adding a few bells and whistles.

SoftPC has often been thought of as providing access to "legacy" applications, providing companies with a method for transitioning from Windows-based environments to NEXTSTEP-based environments. But the term legacy means something from the past. It emphasizes an old paradigm for commercial software.

SoftPC will allow NEXTSTEP to gain a wider acceptance in Fortune 1000 companies precisely because these companies will be able to use their existing commercial productivity applications. But companies will not want to simply run the same applications in a native NEXTSTEP environment without having to use native NEXTSTEP versions. The next revolution in commercial software will occur as developers move away from an application-centric model of software toward an object-centric model. And here NEXTSTEP ISVs must lead the way.

Think about it. Why should I be constrained to using one application's drawing tools, another application's painting tools, a third application's writing tools, and then have to paste the results together (in a fourth application!) to send these components to a colleague? This is the old application-centric model of commercial applications. Instead, using an object-centric model for commercial software, I should be able to use all of these tools on the same document, which can then be sent directly via e-mail. ISVs need to strip down their applications into object libraries that other developers, and even end users, can put together any way they want.

Native NEXTSTEP applications can no longer simply be useful duplicates of applications that are already available under Windows. In the future, ISVs will have to clearly differentiate their products from standard Windows applications. Here are a few ways to do this:

Network workgroup applications. Use the power of NEXTSTEP and UNIX to extend your applications to allow groups to communicate better; UNIX excels over DOS in this area. And make sure your solutions are scalable so that hundreds, or even thousands, of users can make use of the applications.

Object libraries. Provide object libraries with your applications to allow corporate customers to reuse your software in their own internal applications. Mission-critical applications will continue to be part of the competitive advantage that companies buying NEXTSTEP will enjoy. Make your products part of this successful strategy.

Introduce new ideas and push the envelope. Give your customers "insanely great" applications. NEXTSTEP can be a showcase for new ways of working. It is important, though, to listen closely to your customers. New ideas sometimes need refinement before you get them right: NEXTSTEP customers can be a good sounding board for refining ideas before seeking a wider market on other platforms.

The "enterprise desktop" that NEXTSTEP aspires to deliver to corporate customers will be a mix of commercial Windows applications, custom mission-critical applications, and NeXT-generation commercial applications that deliver competitive advantages, help transform business processes, and make using computers a joyful experience.

NEXTSTEP ISVs have a terrific opportunity to help NeXT deliver this vision if we can rise to the challenge of delivering better applications than DOS and Windows software vendors can deliver. I think we can.

Ted Shelton is president and CEO of Information Technology Solutions, a Chicago-based company delivering NEXTSTEP solutions to the financial-services community.