Hey Mac, Stop the Presses

NeXT has an immediate edge with new publishing software, but it seeks a long-term advantage through modular, extensible applications
by Connie Guglielmo

Just as it took the desktop-publishing revolution to make a success out of the Macintosh, it has always seemed that publishing could be the force to push NeXT to the top of the best-seller list. But for various reasons, NeXT has never been able to offer a compelling reason for publishers to discard their old systems in favor of black slabs. Now, after a series of false starts dating back to the rollout of the original NeXT machine, the company finally seems to have the combination of technology, application software, and marketing strategy to make NeXT publishing take off.

The NeXT advantage
There has never been any question about NeXT's edge in the area of publishing. Among its greatest assets is the fact that it is a PostScript-based system through and through. With Adobe's PostScript driving output and Display PostScript driving the screen display, users enjoy one of the only computers that offers a what-you-see-is-really-what-you-get relationship between the screen and the printer.

Its other qualities are no less important. The NeXT's 400-dpi printer, driven directly from the CPU, provides fast, high-resolution printing; the NeXT Color Printer offers quality output at surprisingly low cost; the raw performance of the machine is extraordinary, permitting on-screen, real-time image manipulation and redrawing; NeXTSTEP 3.0 offers the industry-standard Pantone Matching System built in, as well as AppleShare support so that the NeXT can be in-tegrated into Macintosh networks; and lastly, the NeXT's multitasking environment makes it a prime platform for workgroup computing, of which desktop publishing is one of the most obvious examples.

The catch? Until recently, there were few solid publishing applications available on the platform. Frame Technology's Frame-Maker 3.0, a technical-publishing package, was neither designed nor able to compare with Aldus PageMaker (on the Macintosh and IBM PC) or QuarkXPress (for the Macintosh), the most popular tools used by publishers and designers.

That situation has changed with the arrival of RightBrain Software's PasteUp, a $795 program that combines the easy-to-use pasteboard approach of PageMaker with the typographical control of QuarkXPress. Also, San Diego–based Pages Software and Archetype of Waltham, Massachusetts, have taken innovative approaches to page layout on the NeXT and are getting ready to ship their software.

Other software categories have also filled out. In image editing, Appsoft Image and Compose in Color from Unter Ecker Software promise to make publishers forget all about Adobe Photoshop. The illustration cat-egory is strengthened with the release of Altsys Virtuoso, and there is a broad selection of programs for typography, scanning, and output, as well as in the publishing-related areas of sound, video, and presentations (see "Tools of the Trade" in this issue).

The strategy
Determined to capture the moment, NeXT has in recent months spelled out a strategy for conquering the professional publishing market that enables developers and customers to leverage work done in the NeXTSTEP operating environment. Called the NeXT Publishing Environment (NPE), NeXT's plan is to offer its customers everything from shrink-wrapped publishing solutions to object building blocks for creating custom applications.

Between these two extremes, NeXT sees an important new category of software called modular applications, which it defines as shrink-wrapped applications that may be customized to some degree, and application frameworks called engines that will serve as the base for custom applications built with an assortment of objects from third-party developers.

"In order for NeXT to be successful in a publishing environment, we needed to find a compelling advantage that is 500 percent better than our competitors'," says Dave LaDuke, manager of publishing markets for NeXT. "The NPE concept is about leveraging our core strength, which is NeXTSTEP."

What NeXT's object-based system makes possible, in addition to rapid software development and tightly integrated software, is extensible applications. "We think an important trend in software development is toward more modular software that can be modified either a little or a lot by customers, depending on what their needs are," says LaDuke.

NeXT is also emphasizing that it has no in-terest in going into "direct competition with the Macintosh in the desktop-publishing market," and instead will focus its efforts on the "professional end of the publishing market that is still 70 to 80 percent uncomputerized." To succeed, however, NeXT will have to do a better job of describing the benefits of the customization strategy than it has done trying to spell it out to developers.

The controversy
NPE wasn't always the broad-sweeping publishing vision that LaDuke describes today. When NeXT introduced NPE at the Seybold Seminars '92 publishing conference in late February, along with the NeXT Publishing Alliance (NPA), a group of NeXT developers who planned to produce products and support the NPE, several developers working on shrinkwrapped publishing software did not join in the applause (see the sidebars "Point" and "Counterpoint").

At the time, NeXT downplayed shrink-wrapped applications, describing the NPE as "a building-block approach to publishing solutions. Instead of large, multifunction, monolithic applications, the NeXT Publishing Environment encourages smaller software that can be configured to meet individual customers' needs."

In addition, the company seemed to give prominence to Archetype. Also decrying "monolithic" applications, Archetype announced a Document Engine (DE) with a tool kit of ready-to-use objects that could be linked to form full-featured publishing applications. Archetype President Paul Trevithick says his company decided to build the DE after a meeting he and other developers had with NeXT's LaDuke in the fall of 1991.

Since the challenge was to go beyond, rather than reproduce, what had been done on the Macintosh, Arche-type had decided that the only way to create a suite of extensible, highly integrated applications for professional publishers, as NeXT wanted, was to adopt an object approach that was more than "just grafting a little on to the side of a sheer cliff – a monolithic application," Trevithick says.

But NeXT's announcement left some developers, such as RightBrain's Glenn Reid, with the impression that Archetype's DE was the core of the NPE. At the time, Reid's company was at work on PasteUp, its eagerly anticipated page-layout program.

"What NPE stems from in my mind was that NeXT didn't have any publishing applications and they needed to have something happen," says Reid.

The NPE pronouncement also prompted Bruce F. Webster, chief technical officer for Pages Software, which has spent the past two years working on publishing tools for the NeXT, to draft a six-page white paper in April with ideas for making the NPE encompass all kinds of publishing applications, including off-the-shelf software. "There's no reason not to take the broader approach," says Webster. "It casts a wider net and doesn't cost anything."

To Webster and Reid, NPE also seemed to be out of step with what customers wanted. "With their initial concept of NPE, the focus was the Objects-R-Us approach," says Webster. "NeXT thought that they would provide a set of key objects that plugged together, and that this would convince people to buy NeXT systems."

But Pages felt that there was no "compelling business case for third-party developers to build objects," according to Webster. "The challenge for us is to separate out key objects and license them without giving away our proprietary technology. But how do we make money? Do you license to develop and deploy? It's far easier to support a shrinkwrapped product than a developer product."

Eventually, even NeXT acknowledged it had made a major gaffe. When Julie Acosta, NeXT's developer advocate for publishing, joined the company earlier this year, "NeXT was trying to establish a vision for publishing, and the philosophy of NPE was to meet a lot of the unfilled needs of publishers. While modular software makes a lot of sense, what didn't make sense was that shrinkwrapped packages didn't have a place in it."

Realizing that it hadn't articulated its strategy very well the first time around, NeXT sponsored a conference for publishing developers in June at which CEO Steve Jobs redefined the five-month-old NPE to include all publishing-related tools, from shrinkwrapped applications to en-gines to object libraries.

Even under this broader vision, NeXT reiterated that its compelling advantage remained with offering customers software that is customizable. To that end, says Acosta, NeXT will encourage its shrinkwrapped-software developers to find some ways to allow customers to modify and enhance their products.

"NPE as a modular solution differentiates between us and the Macintosh," Acosta says. "We see a trend toward people who want customizable solutions, but not everyone is going to want mission-critical publishing applications."

To be continued . . .
Convinced that its engine will be part of the next publishing revolution, Archetype released a beta version in July and said it would continue to modify the DE for six to nine months. Trevithick sees two business models for selling the engine: Customers can buy the DE for $150 per user, and then buy publishing applications developed by Archetype and others that will be driven by the engine; or they can buy DE-compatible objects and applications, both with and without the DE, directly from developers. "We're open to suggestions about licensing and royalties," says Trevithick.

Pages's Webster was also bolstered enough by the June developer conference that he is lending a hand in the evolution of the NPE. Webster has teamed with a group of developers to propose protocols for file formats and interchange standards.

But Reid of RightBrain re-mains skeptical of the NPE strategy and believes that NeXT is wrong not to take the Macintosh head-on in publishing environments.

He emphasizes the importance of having Display Post-Script built in to the NeXT, as well as built-in support for TIFF and EPS file formats. "Apple is still trying to catch up in the imaging-model end of the world, and there is no other platform in the world where you can copy and paste EPS files between applications," Reid says.

With its new, broader definition of NPE, NeXT seems ready finally to compete for electronic-publishing desktops. With a robust set of shrinkwrapped applications, it hopes to win in head-to-head matchups with other publishing platforms. With its longer-range strategy for modular applications, NeXT is setting a framework for the future of professional publishing. The market will fill in the blanks.

Connie Guglielmo is news editor of NeXTWORLD Extra. She can be reached at connieg@nextworld.com.