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Steve Jobs takes on the Internet

By Cate T. Corcoran

March  1996
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Following yet another redefinition of NeXT's charter earlier this month, Steve Jobs, a CEO with more lives than a cat, met with press and customers on a rainy day in San Francisco to showcase WebObjects, NeXT's forthcoming application development tool for the Web. Jobs laid out future product plans as well, and pronounced that the server will be king in the internetworked world of tomorrow.

NeXT on the Web
NeXT plans to give away its Internet development tool, allowing anyone to add interactivity to a Web site for free. While users will have to learn the NeXT scripting language, the WebObjects application development tool is simple enough to be used by content developers rather than programmers, Jobs claimed. With WebObjects developers can create interactive applications by using the scripting language (based on C) to combine pre-built objects. The end-user applications, when placed on any Web server, can be accessed by standard Web browsers, including Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Mosaic. A beta version of the product is currently available on NeXT's Web site, and a production version will ship in March.

Also shipping in March will be two versions of WebObjects targeted at professional programmers: WebObjects Pro and WebObjects Enterprise.

WebObjects Pro is designed to enable development of custom objects and comes with a language with which to build them. It will also allow developers to distribute applications across multiple servers. With support for OLE, WebObjects Pro provides access to data in Windows applications such as Excel. The software will cost $2,999.

WebObjects Enterprise adds database access to Web pages. It can create applications that dynamically make use of data residing in mainframes, servers, and PCs. Priced at $24,999 (and up, depending on the number of processors), this version includes service and support.

Applications developed with the WebObjects family of tools can incorporate Java applets and JavaScript code running on the client. Future versions of WebObjects will use Java and JavaScript languages to build applications that will run on the server, Jobs said. Developers will be able to create reusable objects combining business logic written in Java with data stored in relational databases such as Oracle, Informix, DB2, and Sybase.

NeXT is working with Sun to develop a compiled version of Java to run on the server, where the speed of a native application is necessary, Jobs said. The company is also collaborating with Netscape on JavaScript. Both products are due sometime this year, and will be incorporated in future versions of WebObjects, which will continue to support NeXT's current C-based scripting language for application development on the server.

Additionally, Jobs announced the creation of a 40-person consulting group called WebConstructors to help mid-sized and large companies develop applications. Earlier this year, the company changed its name from NeXT Computer Inc. to NeXT Software Inc. and revamped its focus to emphasize development tools rather than operating systems. The company will no longer sell its NeXTStep operating system under that name, although it will continue to sell the Mach operating system. The next version of NeXT's development environment, OpenStep 4.0, is due in the second quarter and will run on NT, Solaris, and Mach.


Jobs spins Web vision
Framed by spiderwebs of orange light and a vase of flowers perched on a black base that eerily resembled the old NeXT cube, Jobs demonstrated several Web applications and pitched a server-centric view of the Internet. Client-based applications may be fine for the consumer, but server-based applications will boom among big business users, Jobs said. If developers want to create an application that can be accessed by a Web browser, it's easier to run the application on a Web server and avoid the cross-platform issues Java was designed to combat, said WebObject's Product Manager John Landwehr.

The server also offers a lot of processing power and can run applications larger than Java applets. Security is another reason to run applications on the server. "You want the computations to be on the server, because a client could spoof the server by adding, say, a 20 percent discount [to the price of an on-line catalog item]," said Avadis Tevenian, vice president of engineering.

Analysts disagreed about the superiority of server-based applications, but acknowledged that there will be a significant market for tools such as WebObjects. "The server approach is good for a lot of things that need to be done, but for more powerful applications that will be very, very compelling, client-side code is a must," said John Robb, an analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. "[Server-based applications] are great for low-end interactivity or passive entertainment, but if you really want to go beyond that, you should take advantage of the computing power on the other end of the wire, Robb said."

But for those who want to develop on the server, the NeXT tools will be easier to use and maintain than current alternatives such as HTML, CGI, and Perl scripts, Tevenian said. Potential competitors include Microsoft's web-enabled Visual Basic Scripting language and Neuron Data's Web Element, both due in March.

Like WebObjects, Web Element connects Web browsers with existing corporate data, but it does so by embedding Web browsers in legacy applications. Other Microsoft Web products are scheduled to ship later this year. JavaSoft shipped Java 1.0 programming environment in late January; and, although NeXT does not consider it a competitor because it deals with the client side only, it will create interactive Web pages nonetheless.

Jobs demonstrated Web-based applications from Chrysler and the OAG Travel Services, although only Chrysler's application was developed with WebObjects. In the demos, located on the NeXT Web site, Jobs reserved an airline flight and calculated the monthly payments for a lime green subcompact car over the Internet.

According to Jobs, Merrill Lynch, Motorola, Dreamworks, and FannieMae plan to use WebObjects to develop internal applications. "We're very excited about this technology," said Marty Colburn, vice president of technology integration for FannieMae, which arranges home loans for low-income buyers. "We'll be putting applications out in lenders' shops and internally this year."
--Cate T. Corcoran

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