What happened to the Network Computer?

- by John Boyd -

Remember the fuss made in the industry press about the "new computing paradigmÓ that arose in the mid-'90s? How a cheap, bare-bones box networked to a server was going to replace the PC, bring down costs, and revolutionize enterprise computing? We're still waiting...

The idea was first promoted by larry Ellison, head of database leader Oracle. It also drew support from Scott McNeally, chief of Sun Microsystems, who saw it as the ideal vehicle to run the Java OS, the emerging operating system designed for the Internet.

The idea gained impetus when business consultants the Gartner Group brought to light the hidden costs of PCs. After surveying the use of PCs in large corporations, Gartner came up with the notion of "total cost of ownership" (TCO) as a way to focus attention on such costs.

TCO includes user training, help desk, software upgrades, testing, and data back-up schemes. Not much point in fretting over the initial price tag of a computer, when a company can lay out three to five times that amount every year in order to manage the thousands of PCs dispersed throughout the enterprise.

At the same time, it was apparent that the majority of corporate users didn't require all the power and features of a fully-loaded Wintel machine. Yet, the PC was growing more brawny and bloated year by year.

The sane thing, then, said Ellison, was to dump the PC, and replace it with a simple $500 box drawing its power from the network. He dubbed it the Network Computer.

The NC would allow a corporate information systems department to upgrade users' data and applications stored on the server at a keystroke. Users, too, need only access a specific application when necessary, consequently reducing support and maintenance time.

The idea was simple to explain, made a lot of sense, and created much interest. So where are all the NCs in 1999?

Well, you can find them, but you need to look hard. IBM is having some success and has recently won several relatively large contracts to supply thousands of its Network Stations to several U.S. firms. In Japan, Network Computing, Wyse Technology, Kanematsu, and Takaoka are also selling Java-based NCs, but the numbers shipped are miniscule. (See John Linehan's piece on page 26 - Ed.)

The situation brightened here last November, when Fujitsu jumped into the market with a comprehensive package that includes Java NCs, administration software for Windows NT and Solaris network environments, as well as support services. As a result, NEC, Oki Electric, Toshiba, and others are watching the situation closely, though so far there's little to see.

The next question, then, is why the lack of interest in an idea with so much merit? For one thing, Ellison and McNeally made such a big deal of scrapping the PC - and by implication Microsoft - that Microsoft's Bill Gates moved quickly to counter the threat. Microsoft responded with its own answer to TCO by introducing its Zero Administration Kit for Windows NT 4.0, aimed at giving network managers an easier time. And for those wanting "thin," Gates prompted PC vendors to offer scaled-down sealed-client PCs called Net PCs. Then, of course, we have seen the advent of the sub-$1,000 PC.

More recently in Japan, Microsoft launched a localized version of its Windows NT Server 4.0 Terminal Server Edition software: client software for Windows-based Terminals. These plain boxes work just like NCs, by tapping a server's resources via the network.

Gates also had fun with the NC name, suggesting it really stands for "Not Compatible," a charge that holds some validity, according to Takdaaki Mataga, a server analyst with Dataquest Japan. "Different vendors have added their own software (to the NC Java core) so there is no industry standard," says Mataga, though this can now be worked round with the recent launch of facilitating software from Citrix.

Another hurdle is the few general Java applications available, whereas Windows Terminals can access the plethora of Windows packaged apps.

Mataga also sees a problem in the way the NC is marketed. "PC vendors are not very interested. They don't see how they can make a profit, so it's only (second-tier) vendors who are trying hard," he says. "In Japan, especially, you need to promote a new concept hard."

So what are the lessons to be learned here? First, don't shoot your mouth off when you're dealing with Microsoft. Second, when you come up with a good idea to replace the PC, don't expect the PC industry to be wild about it. Third, no matter how marvelous the concept, if it is not an industry standard, don't expect industry-wide support.

John Boyd is no Bill Gates, so if you want to shoot your mouth off about something he's written, the address is boyd@gol.com.

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