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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Internet's Java heralds dramatic change...

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #315  November 7, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    One of my first encounters with computers came about in the mid-1970s. I had to perform some complicated statistical analyses, while a graduate student, using the university’s main frame. While the actual computer was located down at the end of the corridor, in a hermetically-sealed room, attended by operators in white lab coats, I sat, in my jeans and T-shirt, at a terminal... a keyboard and screen, entering in my data. When I was done, I got instant results-- a big improvement over dropping off a pack of punch-cards, and coming back a couple of hours later, to get the output.

    Within a few years, personal computers changed all that. Suddenly, I could have my own machine, running software on its own drive. Businesses were often suspicious-- leery of the lack of control if everyone ran their own software, and have, to an extent, retained control with enterprise-wide software standards and networks.

    New developments in the Internet hold out the possibility of changing everything, once again, and making personal computer platforms and operating systems as we know them (and love them?) today all but obsolete.

    Sun Microsystems has, for years, sold high-powered workstations... fast computers with big screens, usually running the Unix operating system, and beloved especially by engineers. These have seemed on the verge of becoming an endangered species... with PCs catching up to them in raw power, and Unix in danger of being replaced with Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system. Sun, however, has found a new and growing niche for their products as Internet servers-- the machines that actually hold those World Wide Web ‘home pages’ with which it seems everyone wants to connect.

    But the Web is a pretty static place... connect to a page, view the contents, maybe fill in a form, jump to another page. Sun is setting out to change all that, and in the process, change the way we use our computers. In the end this may change the actual computers themselves, and drastically change the whole industry built on building, selling, and maintaining complicated personal computers.

    Sun is pushing Java, a programming language for the Internet. Applications produced using Java would be small, single-function programs... instead of a monster application like Microsoft Office, there would be modules for just what you want-- if you need to spell check, you’d use a spell checker. But what’s really new is that the Java applications wouldn’t be on your computer’s hard drive... they could be half a world away, accessible over the Internet.

    This lets your Web pages be truly interactive-- you could view stock information using your Web browser, while tracking the progress of your stock-picks in an ever-changing spreadsheet chart, all using applications found on the machine at the other end of the connection, rather than on your computer.

    And when that happens, suddenly, the machine on your desktop becomes almost irrelevant. Mac or PC? Windows or OS/2? None of this matters... in all cases, you’re running the same programs in the same way, and seeing the same thing on-screen. Suddenly, your computer no longer needs to be a $2000-$5000 machine with lots of ram, a big hard drive, and the latest and fastest processor. Instead, it can be more like a Nintendo-- a minimal machine that does a single thing, but does it well. Rather than playing games cartridges, it needs to connect to the Net.

    And like games machines, these Net machines could be mass-produced and distributed, for a fraction of the cost of today’s PCs. Maybe $200-$300. And while North American businesses have had a tradition of being technically innovative, they have tended to be much better at producing expensive, high-profit but small production-run products like today’s PCs. They’ve been much less successful at transforming those products into low-profit margin, high volume items like the current Nintendos and Segas.

    Besides Sun Microsystems, this concept of the Internet ‘Appliance’ is being pushed by Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, a company specializing in software to access large corporate databases. Like Sun’s Scott McNealy, he is anticipating a time in the not-too-distant future when not only our data, but also the applications to use that data, come to us over the Web.

    Java is still in the testing stage-- there are currently a few hundred Java applications to be found on the Net. But to run them, you need a Web browser that includes HotJava code, licensed from Sun. None of the current generation of Web software will let you do this-- but the daring have already started to download Netscape’s next generation prototype-- Netscape Navigator version 2.0, with HotJava built-in.

    As well, forget about replacing your current applications if you’re accessing the Net using a modem and standard phone lines... it will take a high speed fiber-optic, ISDN, or TV-cable connection to get the speeds needed to make all this practical. And I don’t even want to imagine the security issues raised by Internet appliances. And how to bill users every time they run an applicatiopn over the Net.

    We’re not there yet, and it will be a couple of years before any of this becomes practical... so don’t throw out your inventory of PCs just yet. But the required changes could be in place quicker than you imagine... bringing with it dramatic changes in the way we use computers in our businesses, and in the makeup of every business making money from computers and software.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan