The high point of the evening had to be Andy Stone bagging groceries at Ralph's supermarket. I just wished I had taken a picture, to pull out next time someone talked about the sad state of NEXTSTEP ISV's...
This time, Rohit and I were on our own, as Mike Mahoney was tied up with other things. I was recovering from the flu, and Rohit was coming down with a cold, but at least we were mostly awake. And, ironically, the NeXT community is actually one place where we are relatively in control of our lives. Andy Stone had last visited Caltech in November 1991, which was probably the first SCaN meeting held there. After a few false starts last fall, we finally fixed a date in December. Andy and Katie (their marketing person, a.k.a. Goddess of the Night) arrived around 10 AM, and we picked them up around 5pm. Since we had a lot to do, we went straight to Ralph's to buy food for the evening. I handled the junk food, they bought the crackers and vegetables. Andy pitched in to help speed things up.
For you youngsters who've never knew Andy, you've really missed out. He could well qualify as the sweetest guy in the NeXT community. On second thought, that's pretty faint praise, so let me just say he's one of the sweetest guys you'll ever meet. He's been around since 1989, back when NeXT was twisting people's arms to get them to develop for NeXTstep. He just became a developer so he could buy one of those cool black cubes, then went on to do TextArt, which became the seed for Create, then DataPhile and 3D Reality.
Of course, he is probably best known as the proprietor (well, propriety is probably an inappropriate word) of the Stone Rave's help at Expo. And yes, we will be holding a International User Group Party in conjunction with the Stone Rave, and it will almost certainly be in San Francisco. Probably at or near the SF Dev Con. Andy's still drumming up sponsors, but it will happen one way or the other. Maybe we can even find some way to do Portable Stone Raves (PSR) for the various Dev Cons. :-)
The main focus of our meeting was Andy demoing his various products, including a rather bizzare one called TimeWave based on the Mayan Calendar. Alas, I don't have time to do a review of them, but I must say Andy does an incredible job of coming up with intuitive, visually appealing interfaces for complicated and subtle tasks. He actually spent most of his time showing off the multimedia aspects of Dataphile, which was their leading product until Virtuouso's disappearence touched off a renewed interest in Create. He also previewed new features in upcoming releases of all the products.
In addition to the food and Andy, we had a handful of teachers from the Val Verda Unified School District. They gave a brief spiel (actually, two of them gave brief spiels, one guy just chaterred on with excitement :-). As you may remember, VV is a public school system, K-12, that has around 350 NeXTs. They are used for everything from school newspapers to web browsing to MUDs & MOOs. I for one think that bringing grade schools online can only increase the intellectual level of the Internet! ;-) It is interesting to see what a fully networked school can do, and it is amazing that schools doing so much less get far more press. Well, not in the NeXT marketplace.
It was interesting that all the laughs I got were mostly from gallows humour: the dearth of ISVs, NeXT's stealth marketing, the encroachment of Microsoft. We've certainly taken our share of hits. And yet, there's a certain resilience in the air, as if people were saying "This is pathetic, but we can live with it, and even have fun." And we were able to get almost fifty people, many from an hour or so away (of course, everything in LA is an hour away at 7 PM :-). We had students, community college teachers, consultants, some Smalltalk geeks, and an Army Reserve Commander present. What we were short on were hard-core hackers, though that may have been due to location or content. Plus, there are some good long-term signs: Cambrige Animation setting up an office in North Hollywood, and Warner Brothers Feature Animation hiring left and right.
The most encouraging thing about Andy's visit was that he's still around, long after many of his early contemporaries (perhaps excepting only Lighthouse) have bit the dust. What's more, they're doing OK. They still get orders from the big customers, plus a steady trickle of new users via the 3rd Party Products CD-ROM. They also have the advantage of low overhead (three people, three mature products). Perhaps most importantly, they're not worried about getting rich, they just want to do cool things.
In some sense, things have come full circle. Once again, there are just a handful of ISV's, a fringe collection of users, and a marginal market. And Andy claims to like it that way. Not that he is shying away from the Solaris/OpenStep port! Perhaps this is the future of the NeXT marketplace: small, nimble ISVs doing apps on the fringe. Not a big moneymaker, but then again most of the computing industry is living off of Microsofts leaving's. If you can find a niche where you can make a living, and have fun doing cool stuff, you're better off than most. Perhaps we might even be able to make peace between the big corporate sites and the small home user, the consultants and the ISVs. I could live with it.
The sad part is wondering what will happen when Rohit and I graduate, and perhaps leave the area. Its not that hard to run a user group meeting, but it takes some advance planning, a few key contacts, and a good database. We had one freshman at the meeting, and he ran off before we could corral him into anything. Where will the next generation come from? Will we have to move to Val Verde? ;-)
The problem we seem to have is that there are more people willing to COME to a user group meeting than to run one. All the old time high energy people are either burned out or booked solid. The user groups of today that function seems to be run by the mid-level who got involved around 1991, when the dream was still alive but the hype wasn't so high. Perhaps we need to focus more on low-intensity meetings that people can run without too much effort, and getting more people involved in setting them up.
At any rate, the bottom line is that the end user community is still alive and well, there is some new blood coming in, and some ISV's are able to hold their own. 1995 could be a very interesting year. Look forward to sharing it with you.
-- Ernie Prabhakar