Top NeXT Engineer Faces a Big Task: Make Apple Bloom
After Computer Firms Meld, Can Avie Tevanian Perform Operating-System Rescue?
By Lee Gomes, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal
December 24, 1996
He's from NeXT Software, Inc. and he has arrived to rescue Apple Computer, Inc. His name, though, is not Steve Jobs.
If the Apple-NeXT partnership announced last Friday confounds the skeptics and pulls off the technical miracle that saves Apple, much of the credit will go to Avie Tevanian, who now finds himself sitting in one of the hottest seats in the computing world.
Mr. Tevanian, 35 years old, is NeXT's vice president of engineering. Suddenly, he's also about to be an Apple employee because of Apple's planned $400 million purchase of NeXT. His new job: overseeing the development of the combined Apple-Next operating system, reporting to Ellen Hancock, Apple's chief operating officer. It's the job that would have gone to Jean-Louis Gassee, had Apple gone ahead with its original plan of buying Mr. Gassee's Be, Inc.
Mr. Tevanian will be carrying NeXT's flag inside Apple, because Mr. Jobs's post-deal role at the company he co-founded will be minimal. Mr. Jobs becomes a part-time adviser to Apple's chairman and chief executive, Gilbert F. Amelio; in fact, Mr. Jobs is not even expected to proselytize for the Macintosh among developers of software for Apple computers.
Instead, Mr. Jobs will spend most of his time with Pixar, Inc., the computer animation company of which he is chairman.
As Apple's new Mr. Fixit, Mr. Tevanian has his work cut out for him, in a job with double-barreled technical and human resource challenges. Technically, Mr. Tevanian's group must cobble together those portions of NeXT's software it wishes to use along with whatever usable components that remain from Apple's botched Copland operating system. Apple says it isn't ready yet to lay out that blueprint.
At the same time, Mr. Tevanian must act as coach and boss to a group of Apple engineers with an industrywide reputation for being pampered, petulant and unproductive. Even some Apple honchos admit those engineers' tendency to pile their own pet projects onto Copland's development effort was a major reason Copland failed, forcing Apple to shop outside for a new operating system in the first place.
Mr. Tevanian, though, says he isn't worried about his new staff. "The people inside Apple understand they haven't been focused enough on shipping products," he said. "They are desperate to see that fixed." Wall Street shrugged off the announcement by the Cupertino, Calif. company: Apple stock fell 25 cents to close at $23.25 a share in Nasdaq Stock Market trading yesterday.
Apple picked NeXT over Be after an initial price disagreement with Be opened the door for NeXT to make its pitch. While the price Apple paid for NeXT is nearly double Be's final asking price -- 10 million Apple shares, roughly valued at $224 million -- Mr. Tevanian said Apple was buying much more than just an operating system. NeXT, he said, has growing business lines selling software for the Internet and for companies developing custom in-house software; both are major markets where Apple needs a leg up.
Time is of the essence for Mr. Tevanian. Apple wants to release its new operating system by the end of 1997. The company promises the new system will run thousands of current Mac programs, but it also hopes that independent software companies develop totally new application programs taking advantage of the new system's strengths.
Apple needs to attract a new generation of software developers, whose programs in turn will make customers want to buy Macintosh computers, to halt its slide. Achieving its twin goals will also lock in its position as the computer industry's healthy alternative to the Microsoft Corp. juggernaut, but with majority stakes of key markets like education and publishing.
Adobe is Willing
Adobe Systems, Inc., whose graphics programs first appeared on the Macintosh, says its willing to work with a new Apple system. Macintosh's ability to run several programs at a time will mean a "a major source of innovation" for Adobe, says Bob Roblin, Adobe's senior vice president of marketing.
Adobe's recent sales figures, however, underscore Apple's challenge. While once overwhelmingly an Apple-oriented company, Windows sales of Adobe's graphics programs are growing so fast they will soon represent a majority of Adobe's revenues, say analysts.
Microsoft's next move is another question market for Apple. The Redmond, Wash., giant is Apple's rival, but it is also the biggest seller of Macintosh application programs. A Microsoft spokesman said it is too early to tell if Microsoft will rewrite its Word and Excel programs to work on Apple's new operating system. Recently, Microsoft has been reaping more profit from selling Macintosh software than Apple has from selling the Macintosh itself.
Whatever Microsoft does will certainly create legal ripples. Last year, Microsoft's chairman and chief executive officer, Bill Gates, visited Apple and simply mused aloud that he might not be able to continue developing Macintosh programs. Apple executives took it as a threat, and fired off an angry letter to a federal judge who was then considering an antitrust action against Microsoft.
Mr. Tevanian, of course, will be focused on computers, not law books. After eight years at NeXT, he is considered one of the company's key talents and software authors. Mr. Tevanian's managerial style, associates say, is to get products out the door instead of worrying about finessing elegant technical details.
Now married with an 11-month-old son, Mr. Tevanian grew up in Westbrook, Maine, where he spent his summers working in a bowling alley, one of his family's two businesses. The other is a marine-supply store, which made Mr. Tevanian an avid boater and water skier. Mr. Tevanian attended the University of Rochester and then Carnegie Mellon University, where he was one of the first to work on a software project known as "Mach," which became a key portion of the Unix operating system.
Mr. Jobs heard of Mr. Tevanian's work, and set out to hire him. So did Mr. Gates, who wanted the promising graduate student to come to Microsoft. Mr. Tevanian chose NeXT in 1988, a choice that has allowed his NeXT associates to endlessly remind him that he'd likely be another Microsoft megamillionaire, had he chosen Redmond instead of Redwood City, Calif.
Not that Mr. Tevanian will fare poorly from the Apple deal. He declines to say how much he will get as a NeXT stockholder from the $400 million Apple is paying for NeXT. Instead, Mr. Tevanian allows only that his take will be "commensurate with what you would expect."