Feature (part 3)

Industry Implications

The OpenStep announcement represents a fundamental shift in the industry alignments over the future of object-oriented operating systems. It has broad implications for competitive operating-system vendors, hardware manufacturers, standards bodies, independent software vendors, and technology users.

The principals: Of course, Sun and NeXT are most affected by the announcement. NeXT receives a new lease on life, a future strategy, and $10 million in the bank. Most importantly, the deal confirms NeXT's role as a technology leader in object-oriented application environments. The deal is a "big plus, a triple plus" for NeXT, says Craig Sultan, an analyst with Montgomery Securities.

Sun and its software subsidiary, SunSoft, are also big winners. Sun sells 20 percent to 25 percent of its machines as software-development platforms. "It is absolutely crucial to Sun to continue to be perceived as the leading platform for software development," says David Card, director of advanced operating systems research for International Data Corporation. "People won't understand for a year how valuable this announcement is to Sun," Sultan adds.

On the other hand, the deal was a loss for the group inside Sun that has been working on its own implementation of an application layer for Project DOE (Distributed Objects Everywhere). According to a source inside Sun management, "there are lots of people at Sun for whom it is not good news."

It is also a good deal for Canon, one of NeXT's large shareholders and a distributor of NeXT and Sun products in the Japanese market. Sun's equity position in NeXT appears to protect or even increase the valuation of NeXT as a company.

OS competitors: Prime targets of the announcement were the other object-oriented operating-system vendors. If OpenStep is supported as an object-oriented standard on a variety of UNIX workstations, it puts greater pressure on Microsoft and Taligent to bring their products to market quickly.

"OpenStep is a preemptive move against Taligent and Cairo. Of these, Taligent is most directly affected because they clearly operate in the same object space. Microsoft talks about objects, but Cairo is shaping up to be something different," Card says.

Taligent reacted cautiously, saying that its product will be "much more advanced and comprehensive than NEXTSTEP," according to a spokeswoman. But Taligent was known to have been courting Sun strongly. "The girl they brought to the prom is dancing with another guy," says Jonathan Schwartz, president of Lighthouse Design.

Microsoft did not react with words to the announcement. Instead, it announced a new object-oriented initiative with DEC the following week. The irony of this move was not lost on several observers, including Sultan, who points out the fortuitous timing of the announcement. Besides, according to Card, Microsoft's plans for Cairo are not really based on a pure object-oriented model and may therefore appeal to a slightly different customer base when released.

Workstation manufacturers: This deal was directed against Sun's software rivals, not its hardware competitors such as HP, IBM, and DEC. Since OpenStep will be published as an open standard, any of these players could adopt OpenStep themselves. In effect, OpenStep is one more option for these companies and adds competition to the marketplace for their operating-system dollars. "This deal is not a leg up on HP and IBM for Sun," says Card.

HP, which has its own alliance with NeXT, issued a statement that it is "pleased that NeXT's products will now be available to an even wider audience." It also says it will fully support NeXT's OpenStep submission to standards bodies. Some observers see benefits for HP from the deal. "You could say that HP was out on a limb in the financial-services community with its support for NEXTSTEP. This deal validates their position," says Dwight Koop, director of information technology for Swiss Bank Corporation. And HP may potentially sign an equally strong deal with NeXT for a native OpenStep implementation.

Standards organizations: The OpenStep announcement overlaps the ongoing Common Open Systems Environment (COSE) initiative, a process aimed at deriving a standard UNIX from multiple operating-system providers. While the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) represents a consensus among COSE participants for the APIs of procedural applications, a coherent strategy for object-based applications was conspicuously left for later discussion.

According to Bud Tribble, vice-president of object products at SunSoft, "In the case of objects, we followed the COSE process with NeXT. The other COSE partners were notified," he says. When NeXT completes its OpenStep specification in June, it will be submitted for approval to either the Object Management Group (OMG) or the X/Open consortium for approval.

"Technically, it sounds pretty good, but there is a process for us to make a selection for our object operating-system standard," says Chris Stone, OMG's chairman. Card expects that OMG and X/Open will need to do a balancing act with OpenStep and Taligent. "OMG needs to make compromises to get the most number of players involved, but Sun, despite its public commitment to openness, has, in the end, historically gone with the best technology. Sun will only bend so far to the compromises that OMG is forced to make," he says.

Independent software vendors: NEXTSTEP commercial developers could hardly contain their enthusiasm for the deal. "This is the first unadulterated piece of good news in the NeXT community in the last four years. There is no downside at all," says Schwartz of Lighthouse Design.

In a year, developers can port their applications to NEXTSTEP for SPARC and then port to OpenStep sometime after that. Each port represents a larger potential market. In the meantime, NeXT's brighter future ahead will help with both current sales and financing.

For Solaris developers, the deal creates a whole new market. Companies publishing CDE applications will continue to enhance them, since CDE is supported by numerous manufacturers, not just Sun. Also, much of Sun's customer base will continue to use CDE applications. On the other hand, developers interested in gaining experience with Sun's new object-oriented strategy will likely begin to experiment with NEXTSTEP for Intel, since the OpenStep interface (and underlying concepts) will be nearly identical to NEXTSTEP's current implementation.

Customers: Existing NeXT customers gain new options for future application deployment. They gain access to Sun's full line of hardware through the native NEXTSTEP port or SunSoft's future OpenStep product. Since Solaris is also destined for the PowerPC, NEXTSTEP users will also have the choice of those Motorola-based systems. When Solaris with OpenStep becomes available, Sun customers will have the option to adopt the new technology at their own pace. The future product will include OpenStep as one of three supported application environments.

by Dan Lavin