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Omni Group: Charting a Course From NeXT to the Modern Mac

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 27, 2009 4:00 AM PT

In an industry where what-have-you-done-lately is the norm, you might be hard pressed to find someone who remembers NeXT, the company founded by Steve Jobs in the mid-1980s before his triumphant return to Apple. That's not the case at the Omni Group, though, where the management team can trace its roots to the pioneering concern that developed the foundation on which much of Apple's OS X operating system is built.

Omni Group: Charting a Course From NeXT to the Modern Mac

Its experience with NeXT allowed the Seattle-based firm to transform itself from a band of consulting programmers into a software house that today produces 10 applications for the Macintosh, including a task manager (OmniFocus), a chart and diagram creator (OmniGraffle), a project manager (OmniPlan) and an outliner on steroids (OmniOutliner).

What originally attracted the Omni gang to NeXT was how easy it was to build applications for the platform -- a gene that's been passed down to OS X. "I could write five applications in NeXT in the time it would take me to write one similarly polished application on Unix," Omni Group President and CEO Ken Case told MacNewsWorld.

Search for Identity

What makes OS X a great development platform, he continued, is that it allows a programmer to easily interact with code on either a high level (through object-oriented programming) or low level (through sending instructions to a processor in assembly language). "Most languages focus on one side or the other," he said.

Omni remained loyal to NeXT as it searched for an identity. It exited the hardware business -- there were fewer buyers for its US$50,000 black cube than it anticipated -- and declared itself a cross-platform workstation operating system maker. When that approach didn't fly, it decided to become a Windows tools vendor. That's when the Omni crew jumped the good ship NeXT to work with Sun Microsystems on its Java technology.

Nine months into the Sun contracts, however, Apple bought NeXT, which was good news to Omni. "We all celebrated," Case recalled, "because we could get out of Java, which was not nearly as powerful as what we'd been doing with the NeXT technology."

During its years of developing programs, Omni has forged a philosophy of what good software should be. It should be fun. It should be easy to use. It should be free of feature bloat.

How does Omni meet those standards? "We use all our software ourselves," Case responded. "When you build something you're using every day, you start to notice the things that get in the way and can be more efficient."

'Straight-Line Efficient'

In addition to reviewing its applications with in-house eyes, Omni puts its products through a lengthy public beta cycle -- what it calls its "sneaky peek" cycle. Because of the length of the cycle, the testing is designed to constantly bring new blood into the process.

If a person has been using the software for six months, Case explained, a new feature might make sense to them but still pose problems for a user with less experience.

"When we did the OmniFocus sneaky peek, for example, we would add a few hundred people a week to the cycle so we always had fresh faces looking at the software," he elaborated.

The company's sensitivity to its users' needs received praise from Victor J. Medina, a partner with the law firm of Medina, Martinez & Castroll in Pennington, N.J., who uses all the major Omni Group applications.

"I find the Omni Group's mindset straight-line efficient," he told MacNewsWorld. "Some of the other stuff has so many bells and whistles there doesn't seem to be a lot of invested time thinking about the user's perspective."

"The Omni Group's thinking is very streamlined," he added, "and their approach to graphic interfaces and the user experience is one of, 'We're going to make it simple for them to do and obvious to get.' And it works."

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