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The NeXT Thing for Apple

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On Friday, December 20th, we were packing up for Christmas vacation when the rumors of Apple buying NeXT started in earnest. By evening, when rumors coalesced into reality with an Apple-organized press conference, we were eating dinner and leaving for the airport. Luckily, Apple failed (as usual) to invite TidBITS to participate in the conference via telephone - otherwise, we would have had to rush dinner and packing to make our flight. However, information about the deal wasn't hard to come by, and keeping up with email over Christmas provided plenty of thoughts about the acquisition, some founded in solid fact, others rife with bilious opinion. I anticipate the big question at this week's Macworld Expo will be "What do you think about the NeXT deal?" Here are my thoughts.

Trying to Be NeXT -- Rumors have been flying around Apple's possible acquisition of Jean-Louis Gassee's Be Inc., for the last few months (see TidBITS-343). From my correspondence with him, Jean-Louis is a bright and interesting guy, and there's no question Be has done great work with the Be OS, most notably (from my point of view) in its use of an object-oriented database underlying its file system. However, the very modernity of Be's work is a blessing and a curse. As much as Be has done some things well, the Be OS isn't a mature operating system with years of use and hundreds of thousands of users stressing it.

Those facts are generally agreed upon. What is less agreed upon is what Apple would do with a purchased operating system, and I think that question is still up in the air. People kept going on about how the Be OS had protected memory, preemptive multitasking, and all those other words that give computer science majors wet dreams. My mail was full of letters telling me to write about how Apple had to buy Be or face immediate extinction, and to most of them, I replied that I don't understand the low-level technical issues, and therefore didn't have an informed opinion.

I stand by my admission of ignorance. I double-majored in Hypertextual Fiction and Classics, not computer science. I suspect that 99 percent of the Macintosh community lacks the technical background to judge these OS issues on their technical merits, and I strongly suspect that most of the remaining 1 percent don't have the sufficient inside knowledge of Apple's OS efforts or Be's OS work to make an informed opinion. In other words, almost everyone was clueless.

I offer this bit of history by way of saying that frankly, I'm still clueless now that Apple has bought NeXT instead of Be. Most everyone else is as well, despite what they may say. In fact, to judge from the confused and contradictory statements that have emanated from Apple, I suspect even the people who made this decision are winging it. We have to wait for Gil Amelio's keynote at Macworld Expo for the party line, and then we must wait for real information once engineers begin working with NeXT's technology to see how it can and should be integrated.

PR Value -- That said, I'm fairly positive about Apple buying NeXT. I believe Apple's management felt they had to do something bold and exciting, if only to stem the tide of generally unfounded negativity flowing from the press. Apple needed to shake things up, both internally and externally. Bringing new developers into the OS effort will certainly change the status quo inside Apple, and bringing the mercurial Steve Jobs back to Apple can't help but capture the attention of users.

But what about the press? I think Apple biffed the announcement big time. What could they have been thinking to announce it on a Friday night before the week of Christmas? Why not sit on the news until Macworld Expo and announce it at the keynote? That would have brought down the house. As it was, numerous publications like TidBITS and MacWEEK were on vacation (although MacWEEK had coverage on their Web site).

What then are the real advantages of the acquisition, other than a PR boost? They fall into three categories: help with the Mac OS, a high-end Internet strategy, and an entry into certain business markets.

NeXTstep and OpenStep -- I last used NeXTstep in 1989 at Cornell University, which had the first public room of NeXTcubes. Unfortunately, that was version 0.8 of NeXTstep, and although it showed much promise, its Unix roots kept breaking through to the surface. NeXT has done a lot of work since then, though, and there's no question that NeXTstep and OpenStep (the open-standards version that runs on Intel hardware), have die-hard adherents. I recently met a couple of ex-NeXT employees, who, through several jobs, have steadfastly remained NeXT users (one even sticking with NeXTstep on an elderly 68040-based NeXT slab). It's hard enough to remain a Macintosh user when changing jobs - I can't imagine how hard it would be to convince a new employer that you're going to run NeXTstep.

OpenStep (NeXT's current application environment) is essentially middleware, in that it sits between a kernel and applications. Give OpenStep a different kernel, and it can run on different platforms, such as Windows NT. The fact that OpenStep is designed to run on top of multiple kernels may give Apple the technological flexibility it needs to modernize the Mac OS while maintaining compatibility with existing Macintosh hardware and software.

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Second, developing for OpenStep is a far less time-intensive process than most any other operating system. That accounts for NeXT's popularity in certain large business markets that rely on custom applications. The downside of the rapid development advantage is that it requires developers to use Objective C, which isn't as widely used as C++.

Third, and finally, although NeXT's technology may not have all the modern features of the Be OS, it has time and maturity on its side. If one of Apple's goals in purchasing an operating system was to improve the stability and reliability of the Macintosh, it probably makes more sense to go with the tried-and-true over a hotshot newcomer. NeXT's bugs and limitations are likely to be better known than the Be OS's.

WebObjects and the Internet -- The second place NeXT complements Apple well is in Internet technologies. Apple's Internet technologies focus on multimedia and cutting edge stuff like MCF that may never become standard. (See TidBITS-355.) To date, many of Apple's Internet advantages have been provided by excellent independent developers and aren't inherent to the Macintosh.

WebObjects, in contrast, is high-end, expensive software aimed at big business. In essence, WebObjects is a CGI that enables a company to connect its database to its Web server. Nothing new there, but WebObjects is an industrial strength solution that also works with legacy data stored on elderly mainframes. It may not be sexy, but providing access to legacy data is big business, and it can't hurt Apple to be in that market.

It's unclear how Apple will merge WebObjects into its existing stable of Internet tools and technologies, but WebObjects has a clear market and solves obvious problems, something that's not true of many of Apple's Internet efforts.

Foot in the Door -- The final advantage that the acquisition of NeXT brings to Apple is an introduction to some large businesses that wouldn't previously give Apple the time of day. I've been thinking about Apple's problems in the business market recently, and it seems that they stem from the fact that Apple made the Macintosh to be the premier computer for individuals. Creative types have long embraced the Macintosh, but individuality and the power to express oneself don't often coincide with the goals of large corporations, which are interested in standard solutions that can survive an individual moving on. Over the years, the Mac has become a much better choice for businesses, but selling large accounts on the advantages of the Mac has remained an uphill battle.

Although NeXT has developed a loyal following similar to Apple's, big business was always one of NeXT's target markets, so NeXT may have enough of a better reputation (based on providing easily customizable solutions) to get Apple's foot back in the door.

There's always been part of me that says, "Forget big business, we don't need it!" Unfortunately, as attractive as that statement is, I think it's false. Today, Apple needs the approval of the business world, because without it, damning news stories appear in the business press, creating a feedback loop that further harms Apple's reputation. And, gradually, if businesses avoid the Mac, it will become harder for people making individual buying decisions to stick with Apple.

Looking Ahead -- So, once again, I think Apple's acquisition of NeXT was a good move, primarily from the public perception benefits it can bring to the company. Like anyone else, I'm curious to see how Apple plans to use OpenStep in its operating system plans, and I also want to see how well NeXT's technology and people integrate into Apple. Finally, I hope to see Steve Jobs inject back into Apple a spark of vision, insanity, or genius. If anyone can do it, Jobs can, and, the combination of Jobs's panache with Gil Amelio's stabilizing influence might prove formidable.

 

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