is a definite
business appeal to cheap Network PCs, but the concept is not flawless
by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published
in Business in Vancouver
, Issue #352 July 23, 1996 High Tech Office column
noted last week, we're on the verge of
of operating systems--the basic software for personal computers--with
new versions being beta-tested by Apple, IBM and Microsoft.
All provide more features, more power and more stability, and all
demand more hardware. But if proponents of the so-called Network
Computer have their way, users may be able to get by with much less
while still doing more.
is a company
in the business of selling high-end database software to big companies.
Typically, these companies keep their databases on big, old-style
mainframes, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison claims to hate
computers, saying he doesn't like having to drive to the store to
"buy bytes." Instead, he has proposed the Network Computer--a sort
of scaled-down PC that gets its software and stores its data over a
network. The network might be corporate, or it might be the biggest
network of all, the Internet.
a properly designed Network Computer could sell for under $500. This
has been scoffed at: personal computers were designed in reaction
to so-called dumb terminals, which are screens plugged into a big
central computer and only able to run software approved by the high
priests of corporate computing. Many suspect that Ellison's Net PC is
an attempt to return to 1970s-style computing.
IBM and Sun Microsystems are backing Oracle in developing specs
for the Net PC. They envision a minimally powered box, with 4 megs
of RAM and a CPU equivalent to Intel's 486, which was popular
a couple of years ago. No hard drive is needed, and home users could
keep costs down by plugging into the TV set.
computer would boot
up quickly, and connect to the network or the Internet, and run a
Web browser. Using Java software, it could run a wide range of software
(yet to be developed), with the programs as well as the user's data
residing in the network.
don't expect to be selling the hardware--they're developing the
and releasing it to the industry. They expect that regardless of who
makes the hardware or which company's CPU is used, common standards
equal easy connectivity. Their hopes are to develop two main markets:
places where the high cost of owning a personal computer has been
a barrier, like schools, libraries, kiosks in malls, and homes, that
could get Internet connectivity with cheap Net PCs, and the business
market. The business market might well be the bigger of the two, not
only replacing a $2,000 PC with a $500 terminal, but allowing companies
to minimize training and support costs that typically run several
times the purchase price of the actual computer.
and more companies
investigating Intranets, internal networks sharing information through
common, easy-to-use Web browsers, a low-priced, low-maintenance system
based on Network PCs might make a lot of sense.
point out a
few weaknesses in this strategy. Such terminals may be usable in a
corporate network, where high-speed connections are already in place,
at least once Java programs are developed to allow users to carry
out common tasks like word-processing. But are users going to want to
run applications over the Internet? Not if they have to rely on today's
low-speed connections. And are they going to want to store sensitive
data over an unsecured Internet connection? Will they want to give
up the independence and features of a full-fledged PC for a low-priced
cases, it may
depend on what the price spread turns out to be between low-end,
PCs and Larry Ellison's dream machine. Now if they can get its price
down to around $200 or so, the Net PC might make more sense. And
no reason they can't: beneath the covers of all those Sega
and Nintendo game machines lie real computers, being sold at
a profit at about that price point.
gets his way,
this merger of the Internet and cheap hardware could make those new
operating systems from Apple, IBM, and Microsoft seem big, bloated
and largely unnecessary. Maybe less really will be more.