Microsoft, Intel fight Network Computer

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, June 1997

Do you know how much that PC really costs? No, not the purchase price? that?s too easy. How much has it cost after the purchase? not only the cost of buying and updating software and hardware devices, but the cost in learning to use it, and it lost productivity constantly fiddling with it.

Inevitably, estimates vary widely, but some estimates put the Total Cost of Ownership (now yet another three letter acronym?TOC) as high as $40,000 over the five year useful life of a $3,000 PC. Some experts suggest that these figures are exaggerated?if employees weren?t fiddling with their screen savers would they be doing productive work or just hanging around at the water cooler.

Nevertheless, the TOC issue has led to a debate about the use and nature of personal computers, and is changing the way computers are being designed.

One response to these figures has been the Network Computer. First proposed by Oracle Software?s Larry Ellison, the NC (a two letter acronym for a change) is a small, cheap computer lacking any hard drives or floppy drives?it would get all its software across a network. As such, upgrading the software on the network would upgrade all these network terminals, while the individual users would have nothing they could fuss with. Critics have suggested that this would simply move costs from the individual computers to the network and its server, and that the real motivation behind the NC is to get away from a perceived stranglehold on the computing industry by ?Wintel??Microsoft Windows software running on computers with Intel processors.

An NC, using a simple Web browser, could access information across the Internet or an internal business intranet, and could run any of the growing number of programs written in the popular Java language, including, for example, upcoming office suite software from Corel or Lotus.

Microsoft and Intel have felt a need to respond to the Network Computer initiatives. They?re proposing a number of new standards, designed to allow users to continue to use Windows/Intel computers and software, while simplifying the machines and their administration, to reduce overall costs.

The first of these is the so-called Network PC?a three letter acronym, NPC, not to be confused with NC. In essence, a Net PC is a standard PC, complete with hard drive, connected to a network. The NPC side suggests that even if users are running software and storing their data across the network that a local hard drive is still a useful accessory?it allows disk caching, reducing calls to the network and dramatically increasing performance. So far, it simply sounds like a standard PC with an Ethernet card.

In order to reduce costs, however, the NPC would be slotless? as with many new PCs, standard input and output ports would be built into the motherboard. Unlike these PCs, however, there would be no expansion slots? no reason to open the box. No fussing with switches or IRQ numbers. No problems with Plug and Play that doesn?t. The standard calls for a Universal Serial Bus port, allowing for some expansion using USB devices, but otherwise, no chance for the user to upgrade, break, or waste time adding to their system.

Next proposal is OnNow? a plan to eliminate the typical moment or two of bootup. Like many of today?s notebooks, an OnNow computer need not be shut down?instead, it would be put into a suspended mode, waiting for a keytouch or mouse movement to awaken. Users are expected to like the way it will allow computers to be turned on without delay?more like a TV or other consumer appliance. Network managers are expected to like this technology, because the suspended computers can be reawakened remotely, allowing routine maintenance and software updating from the network server.

OnNow specifications were released at Microsoft?s April Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), with products hoped for in the middle of 1998.

Also aimed at the network administrator is the Zero Administration Initiative. Full of noble, money-saving intentions, it proposes a PC where operating systems can be automatically updated across the network without user involvement and software applications can be automatically installed or updated as needed. This means, for example, if a user who doesn?t have Microsoft Word installed tried to open a DOC Word file, the system will automatically respond by installing Word across the network.

An extension of Plug and Play would install and update hardware drivers as needed, again, automatically. Extensive network management tools would make it simpler to administer multiple clients from a single server.

For many business users, this would provide a massive improvement?but there?s some doubt that Microsoft can get all the pieces needed in place anytime soon. Despite the skepticism, Microsoft has announced that the curious will be able to play with trial versions for Windows 95 and NT, available on their Web site.

To help jumpstart all these various and overlapping specifications, Microsoft and Intel released an outline of their model of the near-future at the April WinHEC? the draft PC98 design guide. In it, we find a vision of next year?s Basic PC? a 200 mhz MMX Pentium with 32 megs of RAM, a USB port, and OnNow power management. And no ISA bus.

Intel and Microsoft recognize that many manufacturers will continue to include the so-called Industry Standard Bus, which first appeared on IBM?s 286-powered AT models in 1984. They strongly want to encourage the industry to finally dump ISA, feeling that this is the major obstacle holding back successful Plug and Play. Instead, they want vendors to focus on the PCI bus, along with USB and Firewire (aka 1394) as the methods for expanding their hardware.

The draft PC98 document also describes a  basic portable specification?a 166 mhz MMX Pentium, with advanced power management, a standardized docking station, and again, a USB port. Specifications of four levels of servers are being released in a separate document.

For lots of information on these visions of the near future, check with Microsoft at

In these columns, we?ve been looking at a series of changes in the design of PCs, many of which, such as MMX processors, Universal Serial Bus, and Firewire are part of the plans Microsoft and Intel are spelling out in the PC98 proposals. When I started this series, I proclaimed that we?d being seeing these changes this year?in 1997. Except for Intel?s MMX processors, however, it?s going to take longer than that before many of these improvements have any real impact on the market.

Next month, we?re going to look at what?s the holdup?why it?s taking longer to see products from DVD disks to USB on our desks and in our stores.

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