Coast swing turns up kinder, gentler NeXT

In his early years as an agency analyst, Sullivan used to watch Apple Computer go through constant reorganizations. He would marvel as the ship of state somehow kept afloat despite belly roll after Poseidon Adventure belly roll. He drew charts on graph paper to plot where former Apple employees would land next. Old Apple employees never die, they just pop up again in some other orchard.

At NeXT, the overall organization seemed more stable. With a recent series of sudden structural shifts, the Lieutenant decided to visit headquarters to find out if NeXT has caught reorg disease. The prevailing theory among Sullivan confidants is that most of the recent changes are ripple effects from the arrival of Peter van Cuylenburg. PVC is said to be shining his spotlight on various areas of operations, so don't be surprised to see more changes in coming months as the new president prepares the bottom line for next year's IPO.

While on the scene, Sullivan stopped by the gathering of NeXT publishing developers, during which NeXT managed to allay fears that it was railroading developers to adopt the Archetype document engine. Still, he got an earful about NeXT's past transgressions. It seems that NeXT first encouraged a joint venture, or even a merger, between RightBrain and Archetype. That idea was a nonstarter, as was its later idea of endorsing the Archetype engine as a base architecture. It might have been different if NeXT had acquired the technology, but with 3.0 on the agenda, the NeXT software people didn't have time to fully evaluate the code. The result is that the document engine will be a voluntary standard and that RightBrain and Archetype will go head-to-head with their shrinkwrapped page-layout applications.

Sully's last left-coast stop was the Windows NT developers conference, at which more than 4000 developers lined up like lemmings to get their hands on Microsoft's retrograde multitasking OS. Few of them seemed to care that NT is only the equivalent of basic UNIX and OS/2; those who did found reassurance in Microsoft's smoke and mirrors about a future version, code-named Cairo, that will provide a complete object-oriented development system, "like NeXTSTEP," according to a Redmond drone. Sullivan fumed about the typical Microsoft FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) tactics.

On his way east, Sullivan made a pilgrimage to Dallas to look into rumors of NeXT usage by the Perot campaign. For a billionaire, Perot can be penurious. At Perot Systems headquarters, he passed a bin where employees recycle used videotapes that will be used for distributing Ross videos. He was also surprised to have to pay for bumper stickers and campaign buttons. But Perot is prepared to spend big for computer power, even though the original plan to purchase as many as 1000 NeXTstations has apparently been scaled back slightly.

The other hot story in Texas during Sullivan's visit was the fading hopes for the Superconducting Supercollider, a project that could yield experimental evidence for the holy grail of physics, the Grand Unification Theory. NeXT has a unification theory of its own: While cutting-edge users have tapped NeXT mainly for developing custom apps, a broader slice of users will adopt NeXT to integrate their disparate computing systems. "Unification" is the key word you'll be hearing in marketing messages later this year.

Unification also works well with NeXT's ongoing software strategy. With NeXTSTEP ports already in the bag for Intel 80486- and Motorola 88000-based workstations, Sullivan hears that the next port will be to Hewlett-Packard's Precision Architecture RISC workstations. HP would like to offer NeXTSTEP as an alternative to its New Wave UNIX graphical user interface.

This item is included for all of you jaded techno-junkies who seem to have lost all faith in your fellow man. Last fall, a young Cal graduate lost everything including his pride-and-joy NeXTstation when his apartment was destroyed in the Oakland Hills fire. Incredibly, Steve himself called the next week to offer assistance. It's unknown how Steve found out about the situation, but he generously offered to replace the system, a promise that was fulfilled a few months later. Can you imagine John Sculley or John Akers doing that? Sully can't. The fact is that NeXT values the support of its users.

Is inside information burning a hole in your jeans? Save the pants and get a Jobs-autographed T-shirt in the bargain by sharing your secrets with Lt. Sullivan. Call his voice mail at 415/978-3374 or send e-mail to sullivan@nextworld.com.