Having apparently put any bad blood between themselves aside, Sun Microsystems Inc last week threw a lifeline to Steve Jobs’ now software-only NeXT Computer Inc by licensing the NeXTstep application development environment and interface for use with its Distributed Objects Everywhere environment on Sparc and iAPX-86 versions of its Solaris operating system (CI No 2,303). The agreement, which Sun sealed by purchasing a minority stake around 1.5% – in NeXT for $10m, also calls for the publication of an OpenStep specification by the end of June next year, defining a set of NeXTstep application programming interfaces that can be used independently of NeXT’s Mach microkernel-based operating system. These include NeXTstep’s application development kit, database kit, distributed objects, Adobe Systems Inc PostScript and the object-oriented Objective C language in which it is written.
As part of the deal, NeXT has licensed Sun’s implementation of the Object Management Group’s Common Object Request Broker Architecture, the IDL Interface Definition Language and Network File System, for incorporation into NeXTstep, and OpenStep. Anyone that wants an OpenStep implementation will certainly license NeXTstep rather than build from scratch – the real importance of the application programming interface, apart from opening up NeXTstep from Sun’s point of view, is that the two will submit it to the Object Management Group and the X/Open Co Ltd for use as a standard in object computing. Sun is understood to have insisted that Jobs put NeXTstep interfaces into the public domain as a pre-requisite to any deal: we were persuaded that the world has changed, said Jobs, it’s an open systems world. Although Sun didn’t disclose its specific product plans, it will have to develop a compiler that can translate applications and objects developed using Objective C in NeXTstep to its C++ Distributed Objects Everywhere, and to map from there onto Interface Definition Language. The company will unveil beta test release details and other plans for the object environment to co-exist with procedural development and interface environments at its April 1994 developers conference. Programs created under Sun’s new object environment will also run under Jobs’ NeXTstep, and as part of the agreement, NeXT and Sun’s Sparc Technology Business will also develop a native implementation of NeXTstep for Sparc. The lack of homogeneous application development and interface environments for Distributed Objects Everywhere developers has been apparent for some time. The deal with NeXT is not only a buy-over-make decision to resolve the shortcoming, but, because NeXTstep 3.2 is already out there, offers Sun the chance to steal a march on object operating system rivals – particularly the Taligent Inc and Microsoft Corp Cairo systems – by getting to market ahead of the competition and putting a complete environment under the noses of the independent software vendor community. The Sun-NeXT tie-up poses as many questions as it answers for object watchers, but if nothing else, it brings NeXT right back into contention from the wilderness where it has been exiled for some time. Most immediately, where does it leave Hewlett-Packard Co? Hewlett co-developed the technology on which Distributed Objects Everywhere is based, and offers its own implementation, the DOMF Distributed Object Management Facility. Sun last week said it is actively seeking agreement with Hewlett-Packard to get the Palo Alto company to follow in its footsteps and endorse OpenStep as the vehicle for object development and application interoperability.
By William Fellows and Alison Hawkings
Hewlett-Packard could not be reached for comment last week, but it has already licensed NeXTstep on its Intel Corp boxes and sells the environment to financial markets on its Precision Architecture RISC Unix series. On the other hand, Hewlett-Packard is also being courted – and has been for months – by IBM Corp for its Taligent technology, although that relationship remains unconsummated too. The battle
for product selection aside, the Sun-NeXT agreement means, in theory, that applications created under Distributed Objects Everywhere with NeXTstep should operate with the three firm’s respective Common Object Request Broker Architecture implementations – Sun Distributed Objects Everywhere, Hewlett-Packard Distributed Object Management Facility and IBM Distributed System Object Model – under their agreement to provide interoperability via a set of object interfaces back in June. IBM and Hewlett-Packard, as part of their on-off affair, have, in any case, already agreed to integrate DSOM and DOMF. The June agreement between the three companies was seen as the preliminary move towards a joint submission for Corba 2, the next stage of the Object Group’s Object Request Broker specification. This includes a key request for specifications for an interoperable technology that will enable programs and data to move from place to place without concern for the underlying hardware or software; (the Interface Definition Language was the first step). Sun now appears to have cut and run from the bunch, offering-up OpenStep as just such a specification. With Corba 2, the Object Group intends to provide interoperability between Object Request Brokers that have been developed by different firms. It is keen to get the world’s major software supplier, Microsoft Corp, involved, and Microsoft, of course, has its proprietary Object Linking & Embedding. However, Microsoft has just announced technology developed by Digital Equipment Corp that will provide Corba compliance for OLE 2.0, which will be available late next year – plus systems management and object services provided by Candle Corp – technology that will pave the way towards Microsoft’s 1995 Cairo object-oriented environment. The DEC system will effectively reconcile differences between Object Linking & Embedding and Corba, and translate OLE objects into Corba objects and vice versa. The two are also expected to submit this to the Object Group for adoption as the interoperability element of Corba 2 at its December 7 Object Services Task Force meeting in Austin, Texas. Although Microsoft is thought to have held discussions with IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun and others on ways of providing interoperability between Object Linking & Embedding and the firms’ respective Corba implementations, the problem is that the DEC offering binds objects together in a dynamic fashion while IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun et al use what are known as static bindings. Object Group president Chris Stone – due to meet with Bill Gates this week – admits the selection process should be interesting. Which tool kit do software developers aim at? – Motif/CDE or NeXTstep?
Hate being on boards
Beware the confusion when Sun carried XView and NeWS in parallel. Does Sun get a seat on NeXT’s board as a result of their deal? A resounding no was heard from all quarters. Indeed, Sun boss Scott McNealy made the point in his very own way I hate being on boards. I’d get off mine if I could. NeXT says it shipped 50,000 copies of NeXTstep on iAPX-86 last year and should should run at 100,000 in 1994. Sun’s move to NeXT may provoke others to do the same. It is said both DEC and Silicon Graphics Inc are likely to sign up and may announce their decision at the NeXT developers’ conference in January. One developer we spoke to after the Sun/NeXT announcement (who said he couldn’t believe how the firms had managed to obfuscate the real issues at stake) observed that back in the early days of the first Sparcstation, Sun’s own development engineers were scoffed at by the firm’s management when they recommended going with object technology from the outset and signing for Steve Job’s NeXTstep environment (or like) – technology they’d just seen IBM Corp pick up.