Industry News


The Great NC Debate


Industry experts argue about network computing

By Jean S. Bozman

The network computer (NC) is not the equivalent of a PC-at least not yet. Visions of server applications delivered over the Internet to small multimedia devices known as NCs have yet to be fulfilled. Although such devices are under construction at IBM, Sun Microsystems, Oracle and consumer-electronics firms, NCs have yet to hit users' desktops, or totebags or briefcases. Accordingly, talking about network computers can be a tricky business.

At SCO Forum96 last month in Santa Cruz, CA, a panel of experts forged ahead anyway, arguing about whether NCs are capable of displacing the well-entrenched desktop of the 1980s and 1990s, the Intel-based PC running Microsoft Windows. In any event, NCs won't debut until this fall and won't ship in volume until 1997, vendors said.

Some debaters argued that Internet applications written in Sun Microsystems' Java language will end up "surrounding" Windows platforms, rather than displacing them outright. In any case, Internet browsers already run on top of Windows platforms, debaters noted. But Java applications that can be written once, then downloaded from servers, could revamp today's client/server applications for desktop PCs-and display centrally maintained server apps on NCs. "It's a new way to implement a new type of application with downloadable content, no local [data] store and no viruses," said Philippe Kahn, the founder of Borland International, who now heads up Starfish Software, a Scotts Valley, CA, Internet software firm. "You just push a button, and it runs."

Just Another X Terminal?

Others believe that NCs are little more than downsized X terminals, lacking enough new value to create a niche in the computer infrastructure. "The NC is going to have to evolve and grow [in order] to justify its existence, so we need to define a new market," said Zvi Alon, CEO and president of NetManage, an Internet software firm in Cupertino, CA. "I don't believe there are going to be 100 million users in a short time," he said, referring to the millions of PC users worldwide. "So, will the NC take away the domination of Microsoft? I doubt it."

Yet, other speakers envisioned palm-size Internet appliances that will be as easy to tote as pagers and small enough to be placed on walls-or even on refrigerators-by the year 2000. "The [flat panel on a] fridge is a classic example of an NC a few years out," said Herman Hauser, cofounder of Acorn Computers, a Cambridge, U.K., networked computer maker. "It's an example of [having] an information appliance where people meet." Others noted that some new cell phones are already being designed with small, flat-panel displays that are controlled by Java applets. NCs will sell for roughly half the price of an off-the-shelf PC, Hauser said, and will be far easier to use. That combination should appeal to people who are happy to use consumer electronics and VCRs at home, but have shied away from PCs until now. Ease-of-use is critical, Kahn agreed, citing the widespread use of the Minitel small-screen computers that are linked to France's telephone system.

After the debate, a dozen vendors showed some early NC versions at an SCO Forum meeting room. Among these was the Bandai/Apple Pippin device, a multimedia unit that plugs into a TV set to let consumers surf the Net. Also shown were several X terminal-type hardware devices that have been adapted to display Internet server applications on their PC-sized monitors. Few looked the part of a new-wave NC, except for the Pippin and the prototype version of Sun Microsystems' NC. Sun showed a bookend-size NC device that can support an outboard keyboard, an outboard monitor and other peripherals to help users view Internet and Java applications.

Caveat Emptor

But users had best beware: The value of the NC is very much in the eyes of the beholder, conference attendees said. Where some see a hot market trend, others see potential problems. "I would suggest we've been down this road before," said one NC debate listener, referring to black-and-green "dumb" terminals that display data stored on faraway mainframes. With the high volume of network traffic that millions of NCs would generate on the Internet, he said, "We just don't have the bandwidth in place to deal with this."

"People tend to cling to the past and to follow tradition," said another debate listener, who believed that home PCs will hang onto their desktop perches for some time to come. "I don't believe the home market is going to embrace NCs as [much as] the business world will."

Even if initial NC development and marketing go well, performance concerns and limited application availability could slow a mass-market move to NCs, some at Forum said. And so, stand-alone, desktop-centric PC applications will likely persist in a network-centric computing world. "I'll still carry my laptop," said Kahn. "The fundamental fallacy is to make the NC and the PC [mutually] exclusive phenomena. They are complementary." He suggested that there may be one more surprising twist to the trend: "If the NC presents enough opportunities, then Microsoft will write applications for it."

Jean S. Bozman is research manager for Unix and server operating environments at International Data Corp. in Mountain View, CA. She can be reached at jbozman@idcresearch.com.