Rich Page looks ahead
NeXTWORLD Senior Editor Simson L. Garfinkel recently visited NeXT Vice President of Hardware Engineering Rich Page for a spirited interview on NeXT's plans for evolving its technology, its role in the computer industry, and its relationships with suppliers.
NW: What do you see as the growth potential for the 68K processor family? I've been told that the problem with the 68K is that it's a CISC machine and it's going to cost more and more to make it run faster. And Motorola is going to be more interested in doing something with the RS/6000. People think that NeXT's best deal is to stay with the 68K for a year or two and then go to RS/6000 or SPARC.
RP: You have one of two choices: Go with a unique processor and choose it for technical advantages, and then use those advantages to differentiate yourself in the market; the other way you can go is to pick one of the processors commonly used in the marketplace and then pick something else to differentiate yourself, so you aren't a "me-too." You have problems no matter which way you go.
NW: Well, is there an eventual problem with the 68K? Will NeXT have to switch off it at some point?
RP: I think that the answer there is maybe. Presently, the 68K offers us the best price/performance for available processors. We just think that it's faster and cheaper than the alternatives, but that may not hold up. So then the question is, what do you switch to? You've got to find something that has a better cost/performance trade-off, and something that has a future to it. A year or two ago, you might have been inclined to pick MIPS. Yet if you'd done that, today you would be asking yourself, "Why did I pick MIPS? It looks like they're going out of business."
NW: That basically leaves SPARC, 88K. . .
RP: It's Intel, Motorola, SPARC, Power-PC, and MIPS, and that's your choice. And Motorola has two choices: 68K and 88K.
NW: And you don't want to go with Intel, because. . .
RP: You jump from one CISC machine to another. And they charge you extra for DOS compatibility; it's a known fact. So you're left with 68K, 88K, SPARC, Power-PC, and MIPS.
NW: How do you make that decision?
RP: You pick the one that you think is best, and you make the best product that you can. But presently, it looks like the 68K is the cheapest in its class of performance for a reasonable period of time.
Presently, we have the only working product in the sub-$5000 range. IBM was supposed to ship a RS/6000 this fall for under $5000, and there was an announcement a month ago that they've slipped it out a year. HP had a similar announcement. In terms of a complete stand-alone machine, hardware, software, monitor, keyboard, disk, I believe that NeXT is the only company shipping a workstation for less than $5000. Everybody else leaves out something. They either leave out memory, or they leave out the disk.
NW: Everybody hates the new keyboard. What are you going to do about it?
RP: Well, in the long run we'll probably change our keyboard, and hopefully people will like that. Sometimes you make improvements and people don't like them, because they don't like any change. What happened on this one was that in the process of internationalizing and solving certain problems, we caused certain problems Ð like moving the backslash and the pipe for the UNIX folks. That was probably a mistake. Hopefully we can fix that in the future.
NW: What about third-party keyboard support, like Apple Desktop Bus keyboards? Are there plans to make them work?
The optical disc
NW: Let's talk about the optical disc. Was that a mistake?
RP: Probably. . .
Basically, what happened was that the combination of the Winchester and the optical disc made a good product, but it was too expensive. And the optical-only system didn't work very well. So we ended up with a system that was too expensive and not fast enough. That's why we went and did our present set of products.
But there's another part to it. The thing that was nice about the optical disc was that it was roughly the same size as the 330MB Winchester. That made it very easy for customers to load a new operating system onto the disk or to back up the operating system.
Unfortunately, what people wanted was a Winchester and floppies. Most customers don't care that it might take 30 floppies or more to load their Winchester. What this tells me is that most customers, even educated ones, really don't pay attention to the backup problem.
Japan and laptops
NW: You spend a lot of time in Japan. How is your relationship with Canon working out?
RP: It's working out fairly well. We have a good relationship with Canon. It has gotten to the point that they're an investor, a supplier, and our sales force for Japan and the Far East.
NW: Do they do any design work?
RP: Well, they design their own products, some of which we buy, like the laser printer. They made a contribution to the Kanji system. That's [NeXTstep] 2.1J.
NW: What about other Japanese suppliers?
RP: Unfortunately, we buy a fair amount of product out of Japan. It's the only place to get certain things like memory. We get a fair amount of our memory from Motorola, but we can't get all of our memory there.
NW: They don't make enough?
RP: Yeah, and I don't think that we want to be sole-sourced for memory. And unfortunately, if you want to go looking for a flat-panel display or a number of other products, there isn't any other place you can look.
NW: Does that mean that you're working on a laptop?
RP: We're looking for a display. It's something that we're looking into but haven't really made any progress on.
NW: What are the real issues in bringing a NeXT portable to the market?
RP: The biggest issue is this: Presently, to build a NeXTstep computer, you need a significant performance level, you need 8MB or more of memory, you need a certain amount of hard disk. That minimum today seems to be around 100MB. And then the other thing you need is a certain minimum amount of screen real estate. Now the question is, what's that minimum? With a portable, maybe you don't necessarily need a million pixels.
NW: Is a million-pixel flat panel just beyond the state of the art right now?
RP: I've seen one or two that look okay, but to get a good-quality display will probably take a couple of years.
NW: Let's say two years from now NeXT brought out a portable. How much would it cost?
RP: Well, there are some portables available today. Matsushita built a SPARC laptop [that's distributed only in Japan], and Sony built a News laptop. None of these machines are truly portable, [because] you need to find an outlet or a Sears Die Hard battery. And the displays are fairly poor quality Ð they have megapixel displays, but they're passive, and the screen response is very low. So if you could get by with that level of screen quality, it would be possible to build one today. But I don't think that either company has sold many because the screen quality is so poor. Unless you absolutely had to have a portable, I don't think you'd be attracted to it. Actually, it surprised me that Sony shipped that kind of display.
NW: For NeXT, what would you want in a portable? Would you want it to weigh six pounds and run five hours on batteries?
RP: Well, I think we're going to have to shoot for something like the Sony News portable workstation, but with a better-quality display. And I don't think that operating on batteries is that important. I think that what people want is the ability to carry their NeXTstation around and use it when they get somewhere. Transportability is the important issue.
NW: And what would you want to see as a price on the machine?
RP: As cheap as possible, but it's going to be expensive.