Black Was Beautiful

Transition survivor

News that NeXT was dropping its hardware line hit few places harder than Trimark Invest- ment Management, Canada's third-largest mutual-fund company. Based in Toronto, Trimark had recently spent $4 million replacing its aging IBM System 38 with two monster Pyramid servers (boasting nine central processors and 48GB of on-line storage) and 130 NeXTstations, making it NeXT's largest commercial site north of the border.

But whereas NeXT's U.S. customers were grumbling about being forced to buy black hardware to run NEXTSTEP, Trimark's position was completely reversed: The company loved NeXT's workstations and only slowly warmed up to NEXTSTEP's graphical interface.

It was a little more than two years ago that NeXT narrowly beat out Sun Microsystems for the sale. Trimark was immediately attracted to NeXT's integrated system, high-resolution monochrome screen, and low price. But what clinched the deal was an image-management app that a NeXT engineer threw together in two weeks to demonstrate the ease of building custom applications. Faster than you can say "eclipse," Sun was out.

Trimark had already developed a number of applications based upon Oracle Forms. Rather than throw away the work, Trimark convinced Oracle to make a version of Forms available on NEXTSTEP. Although Oracle Forms runs only from a terminal emulator, the NeXTstation's MegaPixel Display let Trimark's employees have multiple applications running at the same time. People who didn't need as much power were given dumb terminals connected to the NeXTstation's serial ports.

In the meantime, Trimark teamed up with Raivac, a Toronto-based consulting firm, to begin writing a series of NEXTSTEP-based custom apps. The first program, called Market, fields requests from Trimark's brokers for advertising dollars and other marketing expenses. The program scans the Trimark database, calculates the broker's commission, issues the check, and prints a letter to the broker. "It's as mission-critical as you can get for the marketing arena," says Dave Thompson, president of Raivac.

Then came NeXT's announcement that it was discontinuing hardware, followed by news that it was closing its Canadian sales office. "We were very disappointed. It made us re-evaluate our decisions," says Brad J. Badeau, the Trimark senior vice-president who had made the original push for NeXT. "Our real decision was going forward to develop the applications, or [keep] using Oracle Forms and migrate to other environments."

Unable to purchase any new hardware from NeXT, Badeau looked at his options: NEXT-STEP on Intel, a Windows-based operating system, Sun machines, or another workstation vendor. PC hardware seemed affordable, but, configured as a NeXTstation, it soon became quite expensive. On the other hand, Badeau heard of problems with Solaris and Windows. So he decided to stay the course. Needing another batch of workstations to satisfy its fast-paced expansion, Trimark put out a request and purchased 40 NeXTstations used from a few of NeXT's former customers. "We were basically sitting on the fence until NeXTWORLD Expo."

Now that Expo is passed, Badeau is once again trying to sort out Trimark's options. Sticking with NEXTSTEP seems the most likely choice largely because of the custom applications that the company has under development. Trimark also has hired a management-consulting firm to analyze the company's flow of information, with the hope of implementing the image-management application that NeXT first used to close its sale to Trimark.

But the company is holding off on buying Intel hardware until others have figured out which combinations of boards, interfaces, and adapters offer the best price-performance ratio. "We've been waiting for a lot of these decisions to be made for us," admits Brian Deegan, vice-president of information systems. Trimark's looking for one company to offer a reliable, integrated NEXTSTEP-based Intel computer, with good performance, at a relatively low price. "That was one of the things so nice about NeXT hardware," recalls Deegan wistfully.

by Simson L. Garfinkel