A Magical Connection?

John Perry Barlow

Imagine that after living for a long time in a small town, you find everyone else who lives there has started speaking a language you never heard before. They start dressing differently, thinking unimaginable thoughts, and generally losing a familiar affect.

I'm not talking about a third iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I'm describing what seems to have happened to the NeXT community over the last two years, at least from my parochial perspective. Each passing issue of NeXTWORLD seems more impenetrable. It is filled with references to CORBA (which I gather not to be a form of herpetology), inheritance (which has nothing to do with probate), and dynamic messaging exchange (most certainly not love letters).

In other words, IS culture has taken over (much as I predicted it would when I first heard the dreary phrase "mission-critical custom app"), and it uses the sort of hermetic lingo I'd expect from people who've actually read IBM service manuals cover to cover. This may be a gratuitously insulting way of defending the possibly ignorant proposal I'm about to make for opening up the object culture of NEXTSTEP to another kind of foreigner.

I had an experience the other day that made me think differently about the future of soft objects. I went down to General Magic, a little Silicon Valley start-up with ambitions as huge as its backers: Apple, Motorola, Sony, and AT&T. General Magic is mainly a swell sandbox for Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, the playful wizards who gave us, among other things, the Macintosh interface and HyperCard.

General Magic is also a major NeXT refugee camp. Fully ten percent of its staff are former NeXT employees, and even more of the remainder helped Steve Jobs create the Macintosh. The software they are creating will, I think, make objects as friendly and ubiquitous as Frisbees. They are developing two products aimed primarily, though not exclusively, at Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

The products are Magic Cap, a PDA interface as obvious as your living room, and TeleScript, a platform-independent object-based language that I believe is destined to become the PostScript of telecom. TeleScript's so-called independent "agents" seem so viral that I predict we will need special agents to protect us from bands of digital hooligans roaming cyberspace.

What does this have to do with NeXT? Little, apparently, given that Magic Cap currently supports only the Mac and Windows. Nevertheless, the NEXTSTEP and General Magic software ecologies have more architectural commonality with each other than they do with any other existing environment. They contain very similar species that simply don't yet speak the same language.

Here is where I leap in over my technical depth. I don't really know C++ from an exceptionally mediocre report-card grade, but it does seem to me that it might be fairly easy to create an interpretive substrate upon which both kinds of objects could flourish and interact.

Furthermore, the NeXT community has a programming paradigm that ought to adapt readily to the environments that General Magic is creating. And finally, a lot of the people in these two companies have personal relationships that could speed integration.

If NeXT is to succeed, it needs not only to provide a seamless continuity between the desktop and the central office's mainframe, but also extend into the coat pockets in which the businesspeople of the future will keep most of their immediate information. Neither company has the resources to make that happen yet. It will be up to you IS guys to do that.

John Perry Barlow performs his magic here each month.