Article: NeXTStep: Unix for the rest of us

Unix: a nimble ballet dancer in a crowd of lead-footed operating systems

(This article, written by Andy Shaw, was originally featured in the June 1995 issue of Technology & Government Magazine)

While Unix is often thought of as an industrial-strength operating system for scientists and engineers, its elegant design renders it quick, nimble, and capable of conducting complex manouvers almost effortlessly - a true ballet dancer among ma ny clumsy operating systems.

--I've been avoiding writing about UNIX for some time now. Complicated and intimidating, people said. Sure, UNlX does a nice job on network servers, but, desktop-wise, it's like working off a mainframe -- only good for the likes of scientists, engineer s and researchers.

Well, those data-crunching types may love UNIX for its text-based command lines -- like DOS, only with oodles more commands. But not me, said I, as someone just recently weaned from a Macintosh and still strictly a GUI-eyed, point-and-clicker.

Then I met Kevin Ford of computerActive.

Ford is a UNIX evangelist. Spend an hour with Kevin at the keyboard and you're a convert. Oh, he'll show you the traditional UNIX commands, if you really want to see them. But you don't have to. Using NeXTSTEP, the software Steven Jobs designed after f ounding and leaving Apple, -- Ford transforms all that textual tedium into a graphical user interface that makes desktop magic of UNIX.

One password and we're in to something that looks to me like a cross between Apple and Window interfaces. Ford points and clicks and six files, all different applications, open instantly. He tells me only one file actually resides in his own workstatio n, the others live in workstations down the hall. But that's not apparent. He hasn't had to enter anything else to get to them. What's more he tells me the network doesn't actually have the applications needed to open two of the graphical files he has up -- but UNIX has "guessed" what they are like and opened them anyway. Then, lightening quick we cut and paste a full colour photo of a red Ferrari from one application to another. The speed, like the car, makes me drool.

Ford has been doing UNIX-based business in Ottawa for the past 12 years. For the past three, the 40 year old president has headed up computerActive, a consulting company headquartered at a south-end industrial mall in the national capital. And while co mputerActive may begin without a capital, there is no lack of capital at its head. Ford is an engineer and holds a masters degree in science.

Under Ford, computerActive creates UNIX solutions for clients interested in becoming more efficient and effective than their competition", as computerActive's mission statement on the back of Ford's card puts it...

..."Some days OS/2 looks good. Other days Windows NT seems best and still other days Unix has the largest support, depending on who you talk to," says Grant Westcott, Directory General of Informatics for Industry Canada. "So we have all three here. We haven't made a decission on a fundamental corporate standard yet."

Westcott, however, says making a choice of systems does not stir the emotions as it once did.

"It is becoming less and less of a visible issue. Most people have no idea what is on their server and don't care. It is truly transparent to them."

But maybe they should. As Kevin Ford showed with his any-thing-you-can-do-I-can-do-better demonstration, the days of clumsy systems operating client PCs, while far more nimble ones run the servers, could be numbered..."

...Inherent in Unix, adds Kevin Ford, are the abilities managers are looking for in a fast, secure and reliable network. It can identify users and allow them access only to their own work and it can police the network and make every application work po litely together, so the system won't crash.

And most importantly, Unix intuitively holds less urgent tasks in the background.

Concludes Ford: "That's all been built-in, tested and constantly improved on for nearly a quarter of a century"