Stuffing the Channel

Introducing Percy Flage - engineer

I've been asked, as someone with nothing to gain or lose in the matter to put down some words on the NEXTSTEP channel. As an expert in distribution of various kinds - fascinating.

Events of the past few months (finally announcing OpenStep, and dithering over the HP and Alpha and Power PC ports) have once again overturned the business. The main effect of OpenStep has been to persuade some of the large customers with workstation aspirations to delay Intel purchases (or prolong evaluation) ; but an interesting side effect will be the entry of Sun resellers, with a totally different perspective, into the NeXTSTEP game. Canon are also planning entry.

One lesson of the past few years is that we learn nothing from history. A year ago, as the original black NeXT resellers were exiting the business with alacrity, a multi-tiered channel mechanism was planned. A few large, committed and resourceful distributors would supply a plentiful number of specialist resellers. The distributors wouldn't sell to end users, of course, and would supply their resellers with abundant leads generated by NeXT's UK marketing efforts. A grand & worthy scheme.

In the real world, it wasn't so rosy. It seemed to many that leads vanished into the maws of the distributor(s). A qualified plural, because for some time the only distributor of NeXTSTEP was also a distributor of 486 hardware, which rather discouraged resellers of other hardware. I can imagine that it felt very strange to be obliged to buy black NeXTSTEP upgrades from someone who knew nothing of NeXT hardware... not to mention a competitor. It seemed to me, as I asked around, that anyone could become a distributor for the promised investment in a moderate number of copies of NeXTSTEP (which automatically disqualifies experienced NeXT reseller, who do not have quite so much spending money after a few years working with NeXT). I heard and read so many stories of delayed deliveries in this topology that it could be about to attract the cartoonists. Maybe Noiseworks are doing a better job than most of the NeXT Community in the UK think.

In the meantime, new resellers came and went. It is an awesome sight to find a PC sales, or worse, an experienced technical support man totally out of his depth, which is usually where their first real run-in with NeXTSTEP left them. Quite rightly, it has been said that at least one of the large NeXT accounts therefore refused to deal with resellers at all; unfortunately stuffing any experienced NeXT resellers (as well as themselves, if they but knew it) at the same time.

Which I believe puts the market in a distinctly uncomfortable place with no (or very few) genuine resellers, and distributors competing for the few end user sales.

NeXTSTEP has been around long enough for there to be a clear and established pattern of success and failure. Mixed platform software suppliers have failed: Lotus, WordPerfect, Adobe, Frame and many others. They didn't see that NeXTSTEP requires a different way of working, and a purer focus on exactly what has to be delivered. Uncommitted companies don't appear to understand the problem. Nor see the rewards for the user.

Companies that have tried to buy their way into the NeXT market have failed so far: venture capitalists are the kiss of death. VCs don't understand the NeXT market, so can't advise on when to go or hold back. Buying half the pages of NeXTWorld magazine doesn't guarantee getting customers (it wasn't even that great for NeXTWorld).

It looks to me as though all of the successful NeXT third parties have bootstrapped themselves from a single employee, funding every incremental stage of growth from existing business. It seems odd to me that a market entrenched in new and different thinking should sport players who are having to be so 'careful'.

That is why all of the successful developers and consultancies are small, 100% NeXTSTEP operations. If NeXTSTEP makes it possible to deliver large projects in a short time, responding rapidly to customer reports, then we should look to see NeXT themselves take advantage of those facts.

The problem for NeXT of creating success with NeXTSTEP isn't how to get rid of small companies from the business (which seems to be happening in Europe from where I stand): it is how can a small and efficient company best operate?

The answers to this are simple, because there are companies I have come across in the NEXTSTEP community already using the following (forgive me) advice. Focus on NeXTSTEP is a part of the solution; the rest follows logically. "Selling" skills are no substitute for a deep technical knowledge. Use the Internet as an underground marketing medium; it is cheap and fast. And, finally, cooperate. A network of small specialist operations that can respond quickly to sudden demand is a better solution than a larger company with fixed high overheads.

As we know, hindsight offers 20/20 vision (which is only average):

Could it be that NeXT are incapable of differentiating (excuse me) bullshit from credibility?

Or perhaps it is just that a salaryman (working for NeXT), can't identify with, or resents, an entrepreneur. All of the small resellers are 100% committed to NeXT; but are NeXT committed to them? It would seem not, from the above observations.

A manufacturer can't determine channel structure unless they hurt when it hurts. Maybe it is a delayed action -- What does it take for NeXT to hurt?