A network computer (NC) is a low-cost machine which runs a basic operating system and connects to a network for all data access and applications.
It is totally dependent on the server, which stores and runs the applications, making the network easier to administer and upgrade.
Companies spearheading the NC movement, such as Oracle, IBM and Sun Microsystems, are focusing on low cost and ease of use as the key selling points. Now that there is greater emphasis on the cost of PC ownership, it is surprising that more end users have not embraced the NC revolution.
Yet in many companies it is network managers who are voicing the greatest concern about the introduction of NCs, mainly because of the amount of network traffic they could generate.
NCs will only have to download complete applications once a day, but smaller Java applets, data and over-laid sections of the operating system will be more dynamic. It is this continuous flow of information that could cause problems.
Research by the Gartner Group shows that the purchase price of hardware is only a small part of the total cost of ownership for corporations.
So, whatever the initial cost of hardware, the overall effect is negligible.
With management features being built into PC hardware, the savings on NCs become even less important. Studies show that companies can save large sums by using the new generation of improved system management tools, with technologies like DMI - a standard put forward by the desktop management taskforce.
True, there are many other elements which make NCs attractive to businesses.
With no local storage, backup and application costs, they should be easier to control. But many business users feel uncomfortable with the prospect of no local storage and limited performance. They want their documents and files, such as presentations and worksheets, to be saved locally.
They also like documents to be easily accessible so they can be sent from one PC to another and from site to site.
Many companies are asking how long it will take for NC applications to reach the same standard as equivalent PC packages, and which software houses will develop them.
Some PC manufacturers are slashing their margins to price NCs out of the market; but this isn't a solution. The logical approach would be an industry-wide commitment to ensuring that PCs are easier to use, cheaper to buy and less expensive to run.
The Gartner Group estimates there could be a limited market for an NC-type machine, not so much as a replacement for existing PCs, but as a device that does a similar job in parts of a business where PCs are not usually installed, such as on factory floors.
In such cases, the lack of expansion capability is far less important.
Multimedia add-ons and other extra hardware generally don't play a role in such environments. Gartner reckons that NCs will take between 5 and 10 per cent of the business market at most.
I believe that the NC initiative is driven by an industry clique which has tried repeatedly to subvert the spread of the PC into homes and businesses.
As such, it has little to do with an altruistic desire to improve the lot of the average user, and more to do with trying to stem the overwhelming momentum of the PC industry.
However, it may have inadvertently achieved the opposite. In response to the development of the NC, the PC industry has re-evaluated its approach to issues such as ease of use and cost of ownership, potentially bringing benefits to all business and home users.
Dr Peter Horne is president of Mitsubishi Electric PC Division, formerly Apricot Computers.
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