Object-based Software: Is It the Next Thing?

According to Steve Jobs, it's knocking at the mainstream computing door

Is object-oriented computing the shape of things to come in the computing industry? Yes, if you believe the Sun Microsystems and Next Computer representatives who presented an internationally-broadcast panel discussion on the future of objects at last month's Object World conference in San Francisco. And yes again, if you believe John R. Rymer, vice president of the Patricia Seybold Group, Boston, MA, analysts specializing in distributed computing.

Rymer, also speaking at Object World, assessed current events in distributed object computing, noting that the leading object-based environments are coming from companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Sun, Next, and Microsoft, all of whom are funding major efforts. "All the major players see distributed object computing as the next stage of the development of the computing industry," Rymer said. And that spells good news for open systems.

"Openness can be achieved very effectively through the use of object technology-more effectively than by trying to legislate through development of standards," he said. "Essentially, what object orientation is all about is modularity and openness."

Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder whose Next Computer is a partner with Sun in the OpenStep object-oriented software development initiative, was even more positive. "This is a software revolution of the first order that dwarfs graphical user interfaces," Jobs said in Sun's closed-circuit telecast. "The only way we can write the software that needs to be written in the next few years is through objects. Once you understand what's happening with objects, I think you'll agree that all software will be written this way some day."

Beginning with a germ in 1975, objects have advanced to the door of mainstream computing, according to Jobs. "Objects are not yet in the house, but they're knocking on the door. By 1995 they will have one foot in the mainstream house and by 1996 they will have both feet in the mainstream house," he predicted.

Object-oriented programming is an attempt to modularize programming through the use of programming entities called objects, which are collections of instructions and data. Programs are written by creating classes of objects with common characteristics such as methods, then using instances of those classes to perform the work. A simplified structure and reuse of software are major goals.

A major advantage of objects is their inherent flexibility, allowing software developers to innovate without breaking what has gone before, said Bud Tribble, vice president of object products at SunSoft. It's a quality that would allow computing products to incorporate change rather than stagnating, Tribble said.

The Object Management Group, a consortium with support from most major vendors, is attempting to give objects common interfaces and make them reusable and interoperable among the products of multiple vendors. OMG's Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), whose release 1.1 has been available for more than a year, is a step in that direction, Rymer said, but he noted that interoperability is still a problem with CORBA. Release 2.0 of CORBA, which is not yet available, will allow an object managed by one vendor's object request broker (ORB) to invoke a method on a remote object managed by another vendor's ORB via a standard mechanism.

"The main issue is interoperability," said OMB President Chris Stone. "It's the ability to be able to write an application and have some soft of guarantee that it will work across platforms." Jobs added, "The key [to the object market] is offering customers something that's so important that they have got to have it. And they can't get it from Microsoft for five years."

In the race to establish an object-oriented computing environment, the contenders are Microsoft, the OpenStep environment of Sun and Next launched eight months ago, and Taligent, the combined effort of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Apple, Jobs said. "Objects are coming down to a three-horse race," he said, claiming that OpenStep is leading because it will ship an estimated 100,000 copies in 1994. Neither Microsoft's Cairo nor Taligent products are yet available.

Rymer called Microsoft's OLE, which is available, that company's "first step on the road to a distributed object environment." OLE is essentially a set of services that provides for interaction between compound documents, such as word processing and spreadsheets, he said. OLE addresses only compound documents on a single user's desktop. "My experiences with OLE have not been that great," Rymer said. "Microsoft does not support CORBA. And it's my opinion that they won't anytime soon. That does not help their competitive position." But he added, "Microsoft's approach is always to get the product out there. It never works well at first, but they always make it right."

Customers for Objects

The most important market for object-oriented products is the corporate market, Jobs said. Early users are Barclays Bank, Swiss Bank and the London Stock Exchange. He predicted that service providers in government are going to be large users of objects, even though it's the corporate market that's driving objects.

Sun co-founder Bill Joy, now the company's vice president of research, illustrated the way object orientation simplifies life for programmers by comparing documentation for desktop operating systems. All the books necessary to write applications for UNIX, DOS/Windows and the Apple Macintosh weigh a total of 200 pounds, compared to nine pounds for the object-oriented Next environment, Joy said.

"Objects are a lot like people," Jobs noted, "in that their complexity is shielded from the observer. You can interact with them without knowing precisely how they get everything done," he said.

Another approach to component software is provided by OpenDoc from Component Integration Laboratories, a consortium of Apple, IBM, Novell, WordPerfect, and others. Its aim is to enable users to create compound documents easily and intuitively, cutting across platforms and including information and media from many different applications. OpenDoc will also allow developers to partition existing applications into independent components that can be combined in various ways. Rymer said OpenDoc is supported by an ORB architecture. The first software developer's kits for OpenDoc began shipping recently .