TMO Reports - Happy Birthday: WebObjects at 10

by , 4:30 PM EST, March 28th, 2006

With little fanfare, one of Apple's most pioneering technologies celebrates its tenth birthday Tuesday, March 28th. Despite its reputation as Cupertino's best kept secret, WebObjects has played an influential role in the history of the Web; a position it continues to fulfill today as the technology driving the market-leading iTunes Music Store.

Once priced at up to US$50,000, the software for building and deploying Web applications is now, remarkably, given away free as part of Mac OS X's Xcode developer tools. That so few Mac users are aware of the gift under their very noses has long been a source of frustration for WebObjects' small, yet fiercely loyal, band of supporters who complain of the absence of any marketing from Apple.

It would seem that, just like the character Woody in Toy Story, WebObjects has long since been replaced in Steve Jobs' affections by a new toy: namely, the iPod. As a consequence, WebObjects no longer receives the love and attention its advocates believe it deserves.

"I've always seen Steve Jobs as being more focused on the consumer side of the business," says Chuck Hill, co-author of Practical WebObjects.

"I think his successes with the iMac, iPod, etc. have strengthened that focus and we are not likely to see a major shift back to the enterprise market."

Steve's 'Next Big Thing'

Back in 1996 the perspective was very different. Born out of NeXT, the struggling enterprise software company which Steve Jobs established after leaving Apple in 1985, WebObjects was destined to become the saviour of the business - indeed Mr. Jobs spoke of little else but WebObjects.

Just at the point when large corporations scrambled to get their businesses online for the first time, WebObjects provided the tools and technologies to create online stores in a fraction of the time possible with competing technologies.

Dell Computer used WebObjects to pioneer the online retailing of PCs; automobile manufacturers such as Nissan and Ford used it to create online catalogues of their products and, since 1997, the BBC has continued to use WebObjects as the technology behind its online news site.

As NeXT had long since abandoned its own hardware platform, most WebObjects applications were developed on Windows-based systems. As part of his promotional efforts for the software, Steve Jobs even appeared on stage at a Microsoft Developers Conference alongside Bill Gates, professing his undying regard for Windows and Microsoft's embrace of the Internet!

Swallowing his pride proved to be well worth the effort. Two months after release, WebObjects 1.0 had garnered more than $2.5 million in sales, with a list of clients that read like a "who's who" of the world's leading corporations: Disney, Chrysler, Nike, Motorola, Reebok, and many more.

Apple acquires WebObjects

Just as WebObjects was proving itself as a runaway success, in December 1996 Apple announced it was acquiring NeXT (along with Steve Jobs) for $425m. Apple's CEO Gil Amelio wanted the company primarily for its OPENSTEP operating system (which would later become Mac OS X), but also for the WebObjects.

"WebObjects looked to be clearly one of the jewels of the NeXT software," Amelio wrote in his 1998 autobiography, On The Firing Line. "It's going to factor importantly into the future... I still can't figure out why it isn't getting more attention from the press".

Under Amelio's reign, Apple invested a great deal in the development of WebObjects, not least of which included a transition from the little-known Objective-C programming language to Java - a move inspired as much by marketing as anything else, according to Chuck Hill.

"The Web application server market was taking off and the enterprise systems were dominated by Java based systems," says Hill. "Apple felt that WebObjects would have a better chance of success in this area if it was based on a mainstream language. Java was, and still is, the dominant language in this area."

As Java was included on many different platforms, it allowed WebObjects applications to be run on the server hardware favored by big business: Sun and Microsoft Windows-based systems. This was crucial, as Apple at the time had not developed its own server hardware, let alone an operating system that could run WebObjects.

It was only with the maturation of Mac OS X and the launch of the Xserve in 2002 that Apple's justification for supporting WebObjects on other platforms disappeared. Development of the Windows version of WebObjects immediately ground to a halt and Apple finally ceased its support for other platforms last year (although there's nothing to stop users deploying WebObjects on any Java-compatible server).

"I think that we need to remember that Apple is first and foremost a hardware company,� explains Chuck Hill. �They make great software but that is primarily to drive the sales of their hardware. In the past I don't think they saw enough of a potential increase in hardware sales from more aggressive promotion of WebObjects, but I see that changing with the introduction of the Xserve and Xsan."

It is this strategy that explains Apple's recent decision to discontinue WebObjects as a paid-for product and bundle it free with Xcode. However, with the emergence of open-source alternatives, such as Ruby on Rails, WebObjects faces an increasing battle for mindshare. Nonetheless, Chuck Hill welcomes the competition.

"I am quite optimistic about the future of WebObjects, more so now than I was a year or two ago," says Hill. "The market is starting to realize that the previously sought after Java enterprise solutions carry a very high price tag for what they deliver. As interest in replacement technologies such as Ruby on Rails rises, so does the acceptance of other competing solutions such as WebObjects."

With the runaway success of the iPod it seems unlikely Steve Jobs will divert his focus from the consumer market anytime soon. But when he stands up to unveil an iTunes movie store in the coming weeks, it will be WebObjects that makes it all possible, proving its relevance ten years' on.

Additional Information: WebObjects Reference Library