Just before NeXTWorld Expo, from January 22 to 24 in San Francisco, expectations are running very high about dramatic new revelations from NeXT. The real news will undoubtedly be more understated, but if only a fraction of what is being talked about comes to pass, 1992 will be very exciting for NeXT indeed.
What we can be pretty confident about, is that NeXTstep 3.0 and dBKit will be shown and promised for March delivery. We are also expecting a processor upgrade for the NeXTstations. This will be a simple upgrade, just a faster chip, and probably the 33MHz 68040, also for March shipping.
We also know that a number of third party software products will be launched at the Expo; some of these are already shipping. Banzai will have their Pages DTP product, Lighthouse will have Diagram!, Stone Design will show Create (graphics design) and DataPhile (flat file multimedia database). I would also expect that AppSoft will announce the independent version of WriteNow and Pixelist (the rewritten Icon pixel editor). The font product Virtuoso, from the company that wrote FreeHand, Altsys, and Concurrence should also show up at the Expo.
Two more that are expected, but I don't know the details, are a CAD application, and a commercial level accounting product.
All of the rest is speculation. The Cringeley column in the American InfoWorld magazine has been surprisingly productive, with many creative speculations, some of them more accurate than they sound.
Lower down on the list are announcements that have been widely rumoured, but somehow seem less likely or just further away. At the head of these has to be NeXTstep 486. It seems potentially a life saver for NeXT, but paradoxically it could well be life-threatening as well. To put a brain damaged version of NeXTstep onto a PC platform would ruin NeXT's reputation, but then so would a full blown NeXTstep riddled with bugs. At the very least, NeXT will need a high quality Unix with light-weight threads (such as Mach provides). It seems fortuitous that the 386BSD project should produce deliverable code in the first quarter of 1992. If NeXT are in a position to use this, then a valid shrink-wrapped NeXTstep could be available for $500 to $1,000.
The added support workload to handle typical PC users, and all of the different hardware that they might have, would surely be more than NeXT could handle. So the expectation is that NeXTstep 486 will require at least a 486, and will have very specific graphics and other hardware requirements.
This leads on to one of the more off-the-wall speculations. Since Compaq decided that Rod Canion's presence was superfluous, very little has been heard of him. One thought was that Canion will form a new company to produce a NeXT specific 486 system, and possibly a NeXTstep laptop as well.
Of the 'obvious' announcements, dBKit is the most urgently needed. This has been talked about and demonstrated many times in the past year. I suspect that many developers are holding off on commercial type applications so that they don't have to rewrite them when dBKit is here. In case you haven't already seen it, dBKit will provide new objects and Interface Builder palettes to allow you to build applications that enquire and update an SQL database. You will be able to write front-ends for Sybase and Oracle without having to think about it. Apparently a default simple database will be provided for those who can't afford one of the SQLs.
So, what will be in 3.0? Quite a lot has been talked around this on Usenet in comp.sys.next.misc, so I can be reasonably confident about most features. 3.0 will support both Novell and AppleTalk as a client, making NeXT as compatible with PC and Macintosh networks as it already is with Unix Ethernet networks. Interface Builder is rumoured to be completely rewritten; this should allow NeXT to change the interface to make it more consistent and easier to use. More languages will be added, Swedish, Spanish and Italian, in line with the new office locations for NeXT Europe. Localisation support for developers is supposed to be improved as well. Developers have been complaining for sometime about the lack of a standard for building help into applications; a new help object should appear, with user interface guidelines giving standard keystrokes to call it up. I also expect CD-ROM support to be improved, and Pantone standard colour palettes to be included, but I'll discuss those a bit more further on.
It seems quite likely that NeXT will drop support for the old (much loved, much cursed) optical drive, and swap on to CD-ROM support in a big way. Already resellers can get a CD-ROM disk with all third party software available in demo format, and CD-ROMs are used to distribute NeXTstep upgrades internally at NeXT. I can only speculate on what form this will take exactly, but a bundled fast Sony drive has to be on the cards, with better support for Unix filesystems, and better searching capabilities.
Another disappointment for older NeXT users that has been discussed is that NeXT might drop the cube. The sexy black magnesium box has been associated with NeXT from the start; but supporting two machine formats just isn't practical for an efficient and cost-conscious NeXT Inc. It would make sense to expand on the slab format, and offer a slab with slots. If it was mother-board compatible with existing systems, then this would be a way to allow colour upgrades to existing monochrome NeXTstation users; possibly to the NeXTDimension, or possibly to a (new) colour board. In theory, this upgrade could be done very cheaply, and existing cube users could, if we are lucky, benefit from a range of compatible cards.
Less likely are a few speculations about what could be done in NeXTstep 3.0: if it was upgraded to include Mach 3.0 (which isn't finished yet) support, NeXT could have the first tightly coupled, symmetrical multi-processor, simply by dropping in extra CPU cards. NeXTstep is currently built on a Mach 2.4 system, with revisions in line with 2.5. NeXT is reputed to be incorporating support for the Zilla demonstration parallel processing application into the 3.0 kernel, so this isn't as unlikely as may otherwise be thought.
Renderman, from Steve Job's other company, Pixar, has been available for the NeXT for some time. The Silicon Graphics Indigo machine has been raved about for it's support for 3D graphics at a low price. How about if Renderman was bought by NeXT for supply as part of 3.0, as 3DKit? The addition of Pantone colours is a boon for the publishing trade, but this would go very well with a closer relationship with Renderman.
Another 'gift' to publishing and graphics firms is the strong rumour that NeXT will announce a cheap, 400 dpi colour laser. This seems very likely; Hewlett-Packard have just started shipping the 300 dpi DeskWriter for Macs; NeXT won't be far behind with a better system.
Last of the reasonable probabilities: NeXT should announce ISDN support. I have heard this talked about in several different forms, but it seems reasonable that all new NeXT systems will come with built-in ISDN hardware. I have heard talk of a software only implementation using the DSP port, and I have heard talk of incorporating a Hayes designed hardware ISDN modem into the backplane.
Finally, a few more possibilities, but these are all on the long term horizon, so I don't expect an announcement at the Expo. New processors: the new CPU is likely to be the Motorola 88100, for a system to ship in third quarter; if the Mach 3.0 ideas are right, this could be the first of the multi-processor NeXTs. The shrink-wrapped NeXTstep concept will expand to provide a new standard operating systems for the SPARC clone manufacturers, who are currently being persecuted by Sun. A colour laptop, using the recently annouced Canon fast colour LCD, also for third quarter. And some of the appkit objects are due for an overhaul: the Text object is looking tired now, and the method of providing Services needs to be more tightly coupled into an object-oriented, drag and drop, in advance of what Windows 3.1 has available.
Whatever happens, even the most conservative of these possibilities is an excellent next step into the future.