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Jul 00 Viewpoint

Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 7
Column Tag: Viewpoint


by Jordan Dea-Mattson

A NeXT Victory? First Exposure

In 1989, shortly before Steve Jobs & NeXT launched the first NeXT Cube, Apple was presented with at least one of these brand, spanking new systems for the purposes of determining if any Apple intellectual property had been "misappropriated" in the process of its creation.

This strange turn of events came about due to the litigation, and its settlement, which followed Steve Jobs in 1985 as he left Apple and founded NeXT. In order to settle a lawsuit against Jobs, Apple demanded access to his new baby in advance of its introduction for purposes of evaluation. The outcome of the evaluation was that none of Apple's intellectual property had been misappropriated by NeXT. Steve Jobs and his new baby were "clean".

This exchange between Apple and its now prodigal founder had an interesting side effect: it gave me my first exposure to a NeXT system and the software it ran. I got to play with a NeXT cube as a user, and even did a little bit of development using very early versions of ProjectBuilder, InterfaceBuilder, and the AppKit. It was enough of an exposure to show me the greatness of this new platform.

I, along with many of my co-workers, was extremely impressed with the power, flexibility, elegance, and ease of development with the NeXTStep frameworks. A number of us, including myself, were very concerned that NeXT was going to "eat our lunch" if we didn't do something.

No Lasting Effect

Based on our, and other's concerns, task forces were launched and people came forward with proposals and prototypes. At its peak, Apple probably had two to three times as many folks focused on the "NeXT Menace", as were employed in the entire NeXT engineering organization.

While some good came out of all this effort — for example, the AppleScript had its genesis in this effort — in terms of core software development things stayed pretty much the same. Apple made tweaks here and there to MPW. Think, and then Symantec, made very minor changes to Think C. And Metrowerks burst onto the scene and made a lasting impression, not by changing how people developed software, but by turning out a fast turnaround C/C++ compiler for the PowerPC. Bottom line, in the realm of software development things were static.

It Wasn't Just Tools

But tools weren't the only thing that stagnated on the Mac platform. In fact the entire platform stagnated. Sure, Apple moved to the PowerPC, and delivered Mac OS 7 and then 8, but things essentially stayed the same. Yes, here and there things got a little better, but no big strides forward were taken. Apple, but again and again new initiatives withered on the vine after a 1.0 was released. It was a very frustrating time to be an Apple employee, Mac user or Mac developer.

Lunch Not Eaten

The amazing thing during this time was that NeXT didn't eat Apple's lunch. Yes, they took some key customers and markets away from the Macintosh and Windows camps, but they didn't eat anybody's lunch. It was sad to watch, but a product which greatly eased the work of developing software went essentially nowhere.

If you think about it, it was shocking. A shift in how software was developed — the move from procedural and static object oriented languages to dynamic object oriented languages like Java — which delivered 5 to 10 fold improvements in productivity was delayed for years.

In essence, untold millions of developer hours were poured down a rat hole, while NeXT's contributions sat on the sidelines, only seeing duty in a few specialized applications and narrow niches.

A Reunion

Fast forward now to a Friday evening in December of 1996 just prior to — as Apple always politically correctly put it — the "Winter Holiday". Numerous members of the press and Apple's executive staff are gathered in "Town Hall", the largest meeting room on the Apple Campus, for a "big announcement". We all know what was announced that evening: the acquisition of NeXT Software by Apple Computer, Inc.

For me it was the beginning of a reunion with a software development platform that had caught my eye years previously. And like meeting an old love once again, it rekindled strong passions in me. A passion to see this great development platform — be it called NeXTStep, OpenStep, WebObjects, Yellow Box, or Cocoa — freed from its obscurity.

The Right Distribution

With this passion burning strongly, I started to ask myself, "Why did NeXT fail?" Why didn't a significantly better way of developing software make major inroads? There are a number of reasons, but the biggest was lack of distribution. For many reasons, first because it was only on NeXT cubes and later because of pricing, NeXTStep, and later OpenStep, had little discernable market penetration.

And this is a problem that NeXTStep no longer faces! One way of looking at Mac OS X — in addition to it being the long overdue overhaul of the Macintosh operating system — is that it is stealth distribution channel for NeXTStep. A way of getting this great development platform onto millions upon millions of PCs.

Making the Move

I am sure that about now, you are all saying, "Ok, this is very interesting, but what does this have to do with Mac developers?"

Ok, let me tell you what it has to do with you: you know have the opportunity to develop for the best personal computer around using the best and most productive development platform available. This might seem an exaggeration, but trust me it isn't.

The launch of Mac OS X in early 2001 is going to provide a market opportunity for new products and companies. An opportunity next to which the launch of the Power Macintosh in 1994 pales. This coupled with the ease and productivity provided by Cocoa is too good of a chance to pass up.

So, what are you waiting for?

*The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and not necessarily that of MacTech Magazine.


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