As a computer manufacturer, the trick was to get application developers and end users to adopt your overall platform.
Today, the coupling of interface to operating system and operating system to processor architecture has broken down. We're getting close to the time when any OS can run on almost any processor, and any GUI can sit on almost any OS.
Guess what. The trick for computer companies is still to get application developers and end users to adopt their system. Only now, they don't care very much what the underlying hardware or operating system is. What matters is what sits on top – the application programming interfaces (APIs), or in SunSoft's parlance, the application environment.
The OpenStep announcement makes it clear just what NeXT is selling – or, in this case, licensing. It turns out to be no different from what NeXT has always been selling: an environment for developing and using application software. As we now know, the NeXT hardware and even the operating-system ker-nel were extraneous pieces. NeXT's product is the various software interfaces and tools that define the application environment.
But application environments are a dime a dozen, starting with the five flavors of Windows. IBM supports three or four environments. Then there are all those different UNIX variants.
The NEXTSTEP/OpenStep environment is different from most of the others because its primary application is software development. While it also provides a home for end users to run commercial software, its differentiating factor is its object-oriented tools for developing custom applications.
For SunSoft, OpenStep will be one of three supported application environments, along with the Common Desktop Environment (CDE), the UNIX standard for procedural applications; and Windows, which is supported under Solaris through SunSoft's WABI technology. In the interview in this issue, SunSoft's Bud Tribble says he expects Solaris users to gradually migrate to OpenStep over a period of years. Other potential OpenStep supporters, such as Hewlett-Packard, also envision a gradual transition.
For those of us who have already recognized the benefits of NEXTSTEP, such a timetable seems unreasonably slow. But large user sites with big investments in legacy software cannot turn on a dime.
What they can and will do now is begin pilot projects and long-term evaluations. The important thing is that a direction has been set for them. They now have a road map that allows them to plan future systems and begin plotting a strategy.
Although NeXT and its third-party software and services providers won't see an immediate surge in sales, a corner has certainly been turned. The broad market will now look upon NEXTSTEP as an environment whose time will come, not a platform whose time has passed.
In terms of market psychology, that's a very big difference. Between the earlier HP deal on Object•Enterprise and the Sun deal on OpenStep, there is little doubt that a bandwagon is beginning to roll. The trick now for NeXT is to keep the momentum going by signing up more partners to endorse the OpenStep environmental movement.
Dan Ruby is NeXTWORLD's editor in chief.