NeXTWORLD June/July 1993

 

International Alchemy

By Dan Lavin

Most people with killer business plans and no funding are lucky to have a parentís sympathy. Dale Prattís dad, Jim, went one step further. He was sitting on a fat pension fund accumulated over 25 years as a pilot at United Airlines when he agreed to bankroll Alembic Systems International.

"It seemed like there was a tremendous opportunity driving him crazy, so I said, ĎFine, if no one else will fund you, I will,í " says Jim Pratt of his COO son, who has substantial experience in systems integration after six years selling NeXTs for the United Kingdomís Metric, Businessland, and Random Access in Denver.

The company they founded is named for the glass vessels alchemists use in the transformation of base metals into gold. "We chose the name because we act as a catalyst to transform the way people work through the application of NeXTSTEP technology," says Leann Couler, director of communications.

She explains that Alembic is focusing on specific vertical markets such as real estate, health care, and publishing; the plan is to offer systems integration, training, and software distribution. Unlike many integrators, however, Alembic will be setting up high-performance hardware and software systems without huge custom-development contracts. The firm already has 12 employees, with more coming on board.

Shortly after Alembic opened its Denver offices on January 26 with authorization to resell NeXT computers, NeXT left the hardware business. The Pratts took the change in stride. "Itís better for us," says Dale. "Customers who were just standing around and looking at NeXT are now willing to make a commitment because [NeXTSTEP will be running] on industry-standard hardware."

In addition to being an authorized reseller for sever Ď486 computer lines and NeXTSTEP software, Alembic also resells Auspex servers, the high-priced, high-speed data hubs that are high on wish lists at large NeXT sites.

Alembicís offerings in its training line read like a travel brochure. One option is instruction at a customerís site; another is in the Englewood, Colorado training facility in the Rockies. But most likely to capture a prospective studentís imagination is Alembicís new NeXT training resort in Derbyshire, north of London. The 42-room mansion is being refurbished as a bed and breakfast, NeXTSTEP training center, and Alembicís European headquarters. The director of European operations (and innkeeper) is Businessland veteran Chris Frampton.

Alembicís European base and international focus is no accident. Dale Pratt spent two years in England and saw products being produced by European developers that needed distribution help in the United States. Conversely, many U.S. products needed representation in Europe. Filling these needs is Alembicís third business segment.

The company is already representing three European product lines in the United States: solidThinking Modeler and solidThinking Animator, a 3-D and an animation product from Gestel Italia, of Vincenza, Italy; Compose In Color and Black Box, image-manipulation software and a hardware accelerator primarily for image processing from Unter Ecker software in Wiesbaden, German; and Franceís Ares ZZVolume, an architectural CAD product.

Is Jim Pratt worried about his pension? After more than 30 years flying jets, training young pilots, and carrying hundreds of passengers in DC-10s every day, heís used to a little excitement.

 

 

Good Grief

By Charles L. Perkins

Traffic exploded as rumor became statement, then fact: The passing of NeXTís hardware was mourned, celebrated, and debated in 2000 messages in three weeks, 1000 of them in the first three days. Subjects like "AP article about the end of NeXT hardware (looks real)," "NeXT is now just like any other computer company", and "Re: NeXT hardware sold out" marked a sad passing.

The inevitable roller coaster of euphoria and depression was at first disguised by confusion ("Re: The HP deal may be dead" next to "Re: The HP deal may become real after all"), then enlivened by the humor of a song contest ("Almost Black!," "Turning Japanese (Canon)," "(Black is Black) I Want My Baby Back"), and eventually validated by Open Systems Today publishing Net opinions on what Steve could have done differently.

Despite the flip, smart-business-move postings about how NeXTís move was the only viable one, the deep concern Ė and, yes, grief Ė of the true believers cannot be so easily passed over. As a NeXT developer, user, and evangelist of four years, I know my black hardware means a lot more to me than the die-cast magnesium itís made of, and I plan to keep using it for as long as I can. NeXT presented us with more than just hardware or software; the companyís was an integrated vision of a future not dominated by the very profit-and-loss attitude now being used to justify the abandonment of a part of that vision.

Remember that NeXT did not originally set out to penetrate the mainstream: It staked out the high ground, and we all came along for the fast, exciting ride. The NeXT vision cannot be easily stated in words Ė and if it could, it wouldn't fit here anyway. Love, too, is not expressed so easily, but we can tell when it moves us.

Change is necessary and perhaps healthy, but it must not blind us to what we have lost, nor to why we all valued that unique and integrated world we were blessed to inhabit for a time.

 

 

Alliance for Progress

By Jim Forbes

With NeXT out of the hardware business, the North American affiliate of Japanese conglomerate Seko Epson is looking at a new market and seeing, of all colors, black. Officials at the Torrance, California, company are confident that its new 66 MHz DX/2 Ď486 Progression will run NeXTSTEP as fast, or faster than, Motorola-equipped NeXTstations.

The machine, one of three new high-performance computers making up the Epson Progression family, offers accelerated graphics and enough expansion slots, system memory, and other features Ė like a fast SCSI drive and an internal CD-ROM drive Ė to please the most jaundiced workstation user.

Epsonís confidence in its Progression computers is based on a strong relationship with NeXT; the companies have been talking since the spring of 1992, when NeXT became interested in the possibility of using the 66 MHz machine as a porting platform.

The machines were not designed with NeXTSTEP in mind, according to Epson Vice President of Product Management Steve Huey. The Progression family, which includes computers with 25 MHz Ď486SX and 33 MHz Ď486DX processors in addition to the 66 MHz DX/2 model, was built for applications running under other graphics environments, such as the current version of Microsoft Windows.

"But NeXTís engineers using the Progression found that beta copies of the environment worked very well...and that the hardwareís underlying graphics acceleration [which is coupled to the Progressionís CPU] helped the performance," Huey says.

Both companies emphasize the importance of getting customers everything they require, right out of the box. "Epsonís solution is plug and play, just like we used to provide from our factory in Fremont," says David Wertheimer, NeXTís OEM channel manager. "We believe our customers will see Epson as a highly optimized platform for development and deployment of NeXTSTEP."

The other product Epson is introducing for the NeXTSTEP market fits equally well into NeXTís plans. The Epson NX model Ė officials are calling it the "NeXTSTEP deployment system" Ė is the client part of NeXTís favored client-server equation. It is a cost-effective system configured specifically for mass deployment of the NeXTSTEP operating system and released to coincide with NeXTís official introduction of NeXTSTEP for Intel.

There is also a chance that NeXTSTEP users will have access to Epsonís bread and butter: printers. "Itís a safe bet that weíre working on drivers that will allow NeXTSTEP for Intel users to send files to inexpensive Epson desktop dot-matrix printer," Huey says.

Huey figures there isnít really a downside to Epsonís relationship with NeXT. "We have a computer that fits nicely into our line, and runs NeXTSTEP for Intel very well and weíre not dependent on NeXT. But itís exciting to work with a company that appears to be reinventing the PC industry.

 

 

Pyromania!

By Simson L. Garfinkel

As you know, when NeXT first contemplated making computers, Steve Jobs decided the machines should be built from cast magnesium, relatively expensive but strong and lightweight. I was attracted to the Cube case for a different reason: Magnesium burns with a brilliant white flame. When I was in high school, I used to steal it from the chemistry lab and set it on fire in my backyard.

In 1991, while interviewing Rich Page, NeXTís then vice-president for hardware, I inquired about getting an empty chassis to burn, and he obliged. But it wasnít until the day NeXT formally quit hardware that the circumstances were right. The only problem was where to have the fire. Although magnesium smoke is nontoxic, it could attract the attention of police or the fire department. And it turns out I would have had to face a hearing with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to get a waiver from emission regulations.

I was ready to drive out to the desert and just set off the Cube with a torch when I remembered Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, a weapons facility about 20 miles outside San Francisco that is owned by the Department of Energy and run by the University of California at Berkeley. Yes, they were glad to help Ė once we got them our social-security numbers and some safety data on the paint. (It took days of calls all around the country to identify "Sprayon Paint, Omni-Packblend, 4Next Black (icon black), LAV-16, 25216" as water based.)

The morning of the shoot, we were guided through the enormous facility to a burn cell at Livermoreís Site 300: a 20-by-30-foot brick-and-steel box equipped with a sophisticated ventilation system and two large metal doors. Next to the cell were two sheds that the Fire Science Group uses to simulate the inside of a nuclear reactor. A man named Harry Hasegawa and a crew of professional pyros were on hand to meet us. One of them suited up with fireproof pants, coat, and helmet, squeezed into a respirator, climbed into the burn cell, and lit up a small slice of magnesium with a MAP gas torch.

There was a distinctive orange glow from the barís center, then sparks, a steady white flame, and white, cakey ash: magnesium oxide, the same ingredient in Milk of Magnesia. Beautiful. Just what we were hoping for. This was pure magnesium, though, and the Cube, according to NeXT, is a "magnesium alloy specially designed to be difficult to ignite." So weíd need another test: We took off the 14-inch square, one-half-inch thick rear panel of the Cube, positioned it in the burn unit and hit it with the torch. As it heated up, the metal started to melt. A flame sputtered for a few seconds, then went out. Someone wheeled out an oxygen-acetylene torch, but the results were the same.

So a torch would obviously not be enough. The Livermore staff put a big, round natural-gas burner in the cell and placed the Cube on top. The gas flames encircled the box and leapt into the air, but as it heated up, the top started to sag, and one of the sides peeled back Ė more a meltdown than a fire. A few minutes later, the thing was reduced to a smoldering pile of slag magnesium, with pock marks of white ash, charred black metal, and the occasional spark.

Then it happened. A few sparks flared and didnít go out. White smoke billowed from the computer. And the slag pile burst into a blinding white flame. The magnesium had been liberated from its mysterious alloy.

Thatís when I decided to go beyond the agreed plan. You didnít know it, but Iíd taken along the case from one of our decommissioned office Cubes. Surely this magnesium fire would be enough to start the other one burning. We tossed it on and reloaded our cameras.

Ignition was almost instantaneous. The intense heat from the pool of burning magnesium set the second Cubeís sides smoking, then burning. The white light showed touches of green. The Cubeís top sagged a bit, then smoked, then started to burn. This time, the engulfed object was clearly a NeXT computer Ė a triumphant expression of the power of NeXT technology to set the world afire.

I know you will never agree to run these photographs, but I thought you should know why weíre one chassis short around the office.

 

 

Exaggerated Report?

By John Perry Barlow

Mark Twain is reported to have encountered his own obituary and written its author a terse note, "Reports of my recent demise are grossly exaggerated." NeXT users have special reason to relate to this quote right now.

Trouble is, "right now," as I write this, is mid-March. You wonít read this until the end of May or later. By then, Steve Jobs may have pulled his greatest resurrection stunt yet. If he hasnít, an obituary of NeXT Computer might not seem so exaggerated.

For the first time, and even though NeXT is doing most things right for a change, Iím having serious doubts that the company can become a serious player. If Iím wrong and NeXT is looking at a real future two months from now, I will gladly use the occasion of NeXTWORLD Expo to eat these words. Iíll literally chow down on this page of the magazine.

If Iím not eating paper come Expo, it wonít be because of technology. With NeXTSTEP delivering today what Microsoft, Sun, and Taligent hope to have Real Soon Now, NeXT ought to be able to clean up, right? Maybe not. There seems to have been a failure to communicate. The results are discouraging.

To name but one indication of this, I just read an entire issue of UnixWorld devoted to Windows NT and the other new-wave vapor operating system mentioned above. NeXTSTEP wasnít mentioned once, even in derision. It was as though it doesnít exist.

Moreover, NeXT has been leaking brains as though from a massive head injury. Peter Van Cuylenburgís departure is meerly the latest in a discouraging parade toward the exits. As one of the departed said to me recently, "The only people left at NeXT are those who simply canít say no."

And left alone at the top of this chaotic organization is the genuinely tragic figure of Steven Paul Jobs, a character with as much hubris as anyone whoís shown up since Euripides quit writing plays.

Most of us yearn to do well the things we canít and tend to diminish the importance of our real gifts. Steve is no different. A truly great visionary and myth-maker, he has strangely but consistently aspired to be a businessman and manager, showing markedly less talent for either of these dreary vocations.

As a businessman, heís had a hard time remembering the role of compromise in the Art of the Deal. While adherence to principle is an honorable attribute, one must enter most negotiations prepared to give something. But, as one industry leader told me, "Iíve tried to do business with Steve Jobs on ten different occasions and it always failed over some meaningless little detail."

As a manager, he has a curse for creating organizations that look more like dysfunctional families, filled with people far too dependent upon his whims for their own self-esteem to tell him when heís wrong.

If NeXT fails, I will take it personally. I have staked a lot of my extremely scarce credibility on the proposition that, despite the worst marketing since the Edsel, anything as cool as NeXTSTEP would sooner or later sell itself. Now the time has come to think the unwelcome but nevertheless thinkable: This time, the magic may not work.

This column now goes in a time capsule to be opened at Expo. By the time you read these words, their gloom will likely either seem hysterically exaggerated or just another piece of the eulogy. See you in San Francisco.