Dry Bones

Dan Ruby

Everyone has a past, right? The skeleton in my closet is a Macintosh. Actually, it's still rattling around my house, and there's another on the corner of my desk at work. Neither gets much use these days.

For other NeXT users, the skeleton may be a PC or a Sun or something else. Most of us still have the odd application or two that sends us back to the past. The main one for me has been page layout, but now with the new software detailed in our Special Report on NeXT Publishing in this issue, I may be able to close my closet door for good.

The arrival of programs such as PasteUp, Virtuoso, Pages by Pages, and Image fulfills a promise NeXT made way back in 1988. They provide better, but basically equivalent, function to publishing solutions on Macintosh or Windows. The future arrival of programs built around the Archetype Document Engine and NeXT's modular-application strategy will offer a whole new promise that goes beyond any other platform.

We all remember our first exposure to NeXT. Beyond being a curiosity seeker at the original NeXT rollout, my first time was when we had an early Cube on evaluation at the magazine I then worked for. It was delivered by Dave LaDuke, who then was and still is responsible for NeXT's publishing message.

He talked a lot about Display PostScript, the NeXT Laser Printer, and FrameMaker. He had little to show in illustration software, nothing for image processing, and barely existent support for scanners and imagesetters. We saw a lot of interesting demos, but almost nothing that was usable for real publishing work.

We took graphic arts and desktop publishing very seriously at this magazine. The trouble was, NeXT didn't seriously offer a solution we could recommend. NeXT recognized that fairly quickly as well, and publishing was soon replaced by interpersonal computing as the main reason to buy a NeXT computer. But NeXT's graphics technology didn't go away. Developers bided their time and worked on filling in the holes in NeXT's suite of publishing software.

Now we're harvesting the fruit, and it looks as good as Dave LaDuke promised back then. The contribution of the NeXTSTEP environment to the standard set of publishing-software tools is immense. Tasks that are drudgery on Macs or Windows are a pleasure on the NeXT: Rather than waiting 30 seconds for an image to redraw, color windows glide around the screen without a hitch. Instead of typing numbers in modal boxes, you reach right into your page and work directly on the elements. Your mind is freed of the details of the process and can focus on the result. You work faster and more intuitively.

To top it off, NeXT's prices compare favorably to a similarly configured Macintosh Quadra, especially if you include a comparison of color output. It's like the old Broadway hit: Anything Mac can do NeXT can do better, NeXT can do anything better than Mac.

The question has been: Is that enough? Will graphic artists and desktop publishers be enticed by NeXT's charms to replace their Macintosh and Windows systems? Certainly some graphic-design firms will choose to junk their Macs, but it's hard to imagine that a vast number will. Steve Jobs often says that NeXT can't just be better than a competitive platform; it has to be five or ten times better. Well, NeXT is qualitatively better than other systems for publishing, but the key word is qualitative.

Happily for NeXT, the Mac's graphic-arts market is not the only niche for publishing systems, nor is it the largest or easiest to cultivate. The bigger opportunity lies in corporate publishing technical documentation, internal communications, presentations, and corporate identity. The users are the same type of buyer NeXT targets with its custom-apps message: large companies in a few big vertical markets.

For these types of users and applications, NeXT does offer order-of-magnitude advantages and a compelling reason to buy. They need the same customization for their publishing environments that they now have for their financial analysis or document-management systems. They need workgroup solutions that are tailored to the particular needs of their organization. Their software needs to be modular and extensible.

That's where the NeXT Publishing Environment (NPE) and the Archetype Document Engine enter the picture. NPE is a description of a future object market for publishing that would allow VARs, integrators, and users to mix and match components to fit any requirement.

NPE is a dream and it is about as real as Dave LaDuke's dream in 1989. Like then, pieces of it are beginning to come together. But the products are not yet here that would permit users as Archetype proposes to work simultaneously in a document from multiple applications and platforms.

Unfortunately, NPE became a political hot potato as developers of shrinkwrapped packages protested NeXT's seeming endorsement of the Archetype engine. The issue came down to a shoot-out between modular and shrinkwrapped apps (see the "Point/Counterpoint" debate in this issue).

Of course, it shouldn't be a matter of one versus the other. The truth is that NeXT needs both great shrinkwrapped apps and a great object strategy, especially since the first is here now and the second is a year or more distant. NeXT should work hard to sell what it has today, and it should also forge ahead with technical and market development for NPE.

The beneficiaries are users like me, who can finally provide a decent burial for those rattling old bones from our past.

Now that we have the tools, designers and publishers can start to strut their stuff. If you're doing something interesting in NeXT-generated design, we'd like to know about it. Therefore, we're putting together a design contest with awards of hardware and software for the winners. We'll have categories for such applications as advertising and packaging, newsletters, corporate identity, technical pubs, and presentations. Start collecting your best work now. We'll have contest details in the next issue.

Dan Ruby is editor in chief of NeXTWORLD.