Microsoft is just full of surprises these days. First Fox, what could be NeXT? The latest news from Redmond is that Mr. Bill has apparently overcome his dislike of Steve Jobs and the company will be porting its most popular applications to the NeXT. This move, which Microsoft and NeXT haven’t announced publicly yet, makes a fair amount of sense for both companies but is rather surprising given Mr. Bill’s words of several years ago linking the combination of Microsoft and NeXT with frost warnings in the nether worlds.
As I said, though, the announcement makes a good deal of sense if you look at it closely. It’s obviously positive from NeXT’s perspective. The technically-neat NeXT workstations have suffered not from a lack of decent software, but from a lack of decent software from big name companies. There’s Improv from Lotus as well as the ubiquitous word processor from WordPerfect, but not a lot else from the biggies. Jobs may be pushing the NeXT as the ideal custom application machine for business, but big business doesn’t like to buy extra special-purpose machines and would like to have Excel and Word running on those NeXTs as well. After all, no one was ever fired for buying Microsoft, but NeXT is still another story.
What’s in it for Microsoft, though? A good question, since Microsoft makes most of its money on operating systems and it certainly won’t sell so many versions of Excel and Word for the NeXT to really recoup the development costs, low as they may because of the ease of developing in NeXTstep.
I’ve heard rumors in and around the deal that Microsoft will gain some rights to the NeXTstep environment, which is the main incentive for them. It’s a known fact that the kernel in Windows NT is a close relative to the kernel in Mach, the Unix variant used by NeXT, so it could be rather easy to port NeXTstep to NT. It may simply be worthwhile for Microsoft to gain the several years of real world experience that NeXT’s developers have invested in NeXTstep. Heck, if it’s worth trying with Fox, it’s worth trying with NeXT and it’s probably cheaper too.
Let’s face it, Windows is by no means a penultimate graphical interface, and in fact, it’s poor in a lot of ways. The suit with Apple may not help in that regard. But, look, here’s NeXT which needs some credibility in the business world and has a snazzy graphical interface that leaves Windows in the dust. Microsoft can provide the first and needs the second.
Another factor we can’t overlook is the faltering ACE initiative, since there are so many members, each with an individual agenda. It’s hard to merge the interests of divergent but major players like Silicon Graphics (which I believe just bought MIPS), DEC, Compaq, and Microsoft, and Microsoft is certainly not one to put all its eggs in the same ACE basket. Apple and IBM ruled themselves out as allies by creating Taligent to compete directly with the future Microsoft, and Sun as usual is doing its own thing. The only semi-major player left is NeXT, and everyone admits that for all NeXT’s marketing mistakes, they’ve got a great combination of an excellent graphical interface and a good Unix implementation. Everyone was astonished by the Apple/IBM deal, and in many ways this proposed deal isn’t even as radical, although it could have even more far-reaching implications for the industry.