Two of the top three server makers touted their views of the Internet on the opening day of the Internet World show in Los Angeles yesterday - but they drew very different conclusions. Sun's newly promoted chief operating officer, Ed Zander, was extremely upbeat, demonstrating various multimedia innovations for the Net, but Lew Platt, chief executive of Hewlett Packard, was more pessimistic, warning the industry that the Net must get faster and more robust if it is to achieve its usage potential.
Zander's underlying message was nothing new - the "network revolution" was the theme, a process that will bring us a ubiquitous network, available "anywhere, any place, any time, on anything" and simple and low cost enough to be accessible by anybody. The speech might have been delivered with typical Sun panache, but it reiterated most of the predictions we have heard over the past couple of years across the industry - particularly from those who want to sell Web servers in their droves.
Platt too wants to see an Internet that provides services to everybody, not just the computer literate and those able to afford the technology. But he was more gloomy about the prospects for this happening. He believes there are three main barriers if the Internet does not change radically - meeting quality of service expectations, improving security and providing more bandwidth at lower prices.
Only when these barriers are overcome will the dream of the network for everyone really be close to reality, Platt argues - and that's not to mention the cultural obstacles that technology still faces in many areas of the population. Even in the technology friendly US, less than half the population have access to a PC.
Both executives, however, see multimedia and real life applications as key to uptake of the Net, once it overcomes its infrastructure limitations. Platt predicted that Web imaging technologies, digital cameras and - inevitably, given this is the maker of the Laserjet - modern printers will be vital to multimedia communications, and will quickly replace the fax machine.
"Grandma's traditional photo album" will be replaced by a digital image store, with children sending new snaps across the Net, he predicted, pointing to video search engines as a key innovation to underpin some genuinely useful applications for the Web.
Zander focused on smartcards that will "become the user's network", allowing access to all kinds of information sources via the Web, from the office computer to the local library.
But before such consumer friendly developments take off, the groundwork must be solidly laid in terms of infrastructure and development tools. The 1990s are all about "the Internet, bandwidth and development tools" he said, compared to the 1980s' "disk, Dram and microprocessors".
He even demonstrated some of the multimedia communications devices he believes will start to appear soon for Internet users. One was a digital answering machine for retrieving fax, voicemail, email and even video messages via a single telephone handset. On a lighter note, he even demonstrated technology for downloading a song from the Web and burning it on to a CD at home.
But none of this will take off among those who are not in love with technology unless users can rely on quality of service and speed of operation. "Users will expect the same quality of service they get from any other utility," Platt pointed out. "The Internet today is nowhere near this. We still notice and remark with amazement when it works."
And while security should be sorted out within the next couple of years, the demand for bandwidth is currently rising far faster than the network capacity itself. In the next decade users will have to be able to transfer data in scales of terabits per second, not the current Kbits and Mbits, or the Internet will not be practical for high speed access from everybody's office, home and mobile.
Platt sees some reason for optimism though, particularly singling out wavelength division multiplexing, a method of increasing bandwidth efficiency, as having great potential for stretching the capacity of fibre to its limit.
He also has fears over the cultural impact of the Net. While it opens up new vistas of information, education and culture to its users, it also has the potential to reduce human contact. Platt used the example of the car, claiming people are less friendly and polite to each other when in cars than when they make eye contact and know each others' names. The Net would take this process a step further, he believes.
And he fears that the content of the Net will largely sink to the lowest common denominator, has he believes has happened with television. "Television was supposed to change the way we communicate, educate and learn, instead it has dulled our senses and reduced our attention span," he complained.
His message was that the IT industry has the responsibility to drive the Net in the right direction - though many would disagree, claiming they do not want the content of the Web to be influenced by commercial giants.
But perhaps the real reason for Platt's gloomy tone was troubles in his company's PC business, which he also addressed in some detail at Internet World. With all the suppliers under the shadow of a technology stocks slump and a series of earnings warnings from big players, Platt claimed the current problems in the PC industry as a whole are largely to be blamed on companies pushing too many machines into the channel.
He does not see the current price wars abating until after the summer, especially among high and medium end models - partly why all the majors are scurrying after the untapped sub-$1,000 PC market. "There is no question that there is too much inventory in the channel," he said, blaming Compaq in particular for not keeping tighter control of the amount of stock held by its distributors. The excess of inventory is causing a general price slump and low demand and causing problems for all the large suppliers - even for HP, which Platt boasted had kept its inventory tightly controlled.
The company will be forced to match the price cuts and special offers being provided by Compaq and others in order to clear stocks and stay competitive, he complained. And as price pressure spreads from the low end desktop market to HP's key ground at the higher, corporate PC level, he admitted margins will suffer, albeit "modestly".
But rebalancing the PC business is a short term problem compared with that of ensuring that the Internet remains on course to become a 'network for all'. After all, as Platt pointed out, HP has other businesses - not least the Laserjet workhorse. As the industry debates whether PCs will start to lose out to thin clients and other Internet appliances, the real winners if the Net's problems can be ironed out will undoubtedly be the server makers, among which HP sits firmly in the top three.
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