what's NeXT, and where is it going? (76)

Fri, 14 Apr 89 22:50:49 EDT

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 842. Friday, 14 Apr 1989.

Date: Thu, 13 Apr 89 08:55:19 -0800
From: Malcolm Brown <mbb@jessica.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: remarks on the NeXT machine

Prodded by Richard Goerwitz' recent contribution, I'm passing
along some remarks on the NeXT box. I have penned a brief review of
the machine for the ACH newsletter, which I assume should appear
Real Soon Now.

I have assumed all along that the feature of primary interest for
humanists is the digital librarian, a text retrieval program that is
native to the NeXT operating system. In this current form (release .8)
there's not much you can do with the librarian, other than search
some predefined "targets," such as the on-line documentation, the
Shaekspeare files and the Oxford quotations.

In the next release (.9), as I understand it, the librarian will
be more functional, allowing us to actually work with it using our
own files. From what I gather, a user will be able to generate
his/her own stop list for indexing purposes. There's also going to
be a "look harder" feature, whereby one can request the librarian to
perform a "brute force" search (one in which it actually scans through
the text files instead of relying on the index).

What the .9 release will provide with respect to boolean operators and
wild cards, I don't know. I've have conversations with NeXT representatives
and have stressed the need to support grep regular expressions, but
who knows.

Most critically, I think we must look past the glitz and the well-designed
interface to see if the machine will do the work we require. It's very
nice to include the complete works of shakespeare, but if the librarian
only performs simple searches then there's not that much that differentiates
the next machine from a sun or a Vax (at least from the standpoint of
text analysis). Nor is there much to induce one to abandon the machines
running programs such as WordCruncher, MOCP, TACT, etc.

Based on conversations I've had with NeXT folks, my impression is that
they view the librarian as a very general text retrieval system, somewhat
like a Gopher DA text fetcher on a Mac. I find this attitude puzzling,
especially given NeXT's stated policy of NOT releasing source code.

I see no logic in building a machine, ostensibly for the needs of higher
education, that has a lame text retrieval program. This would make
sense only if the intent was to provide a foundation upon which end
users could build by adding their own extensions and enhancements.
But since NeXT won't release source code, the prospects for
such embellishment are not good, unless the Librarian is
extraordinarily well-documented.

The coming months, culminating in late June with the release of 1.0,
will tell a great deal, I think, about NeXT's priorities. I myself
am rather pessimistic with respect to the librarian. We have received
word that in release 1.0, NeXT won't even be able to provide support for
characters with diacritics! Good grief: what kind of text manipulation
environment would that be, that doesn't even support accents????

Although I am skeptical about the NeXT machine's text manipulation
abilities in the short term, I have not given up hope for the longer
term. I like the machine very much, and I think NeXT has done lots
of good things in the design of the machine. Who knows, perhaps
NeXT will change its mind and let us tinker with the librarian.

Malcolm Brown