Three months ago Microsoft and Intel introduced a new member of the PC family, designed to combat increasing criticism of the true cost of ownership and stymie the growing popularity of the NC (network computer).
At the CeBIT trade show in Germany next month, Siemens will be the first company to preview this new breed of machine, dubbed the NetPC.
According to researcher the Gartner Group, the cost of running a PC can be as much as $8,000 (#5,000) a year when you take into account the cost of hardware, upgrades, software, data recovery, availability, administration and so on.
With such damning evidence of the hidden costs associated with the PC, and with the impending threat of the low-cost network computers from Oracle and Sun, Microsoft and Intel had to come up with a plan. Their solution, the NetPC, is aimed directly at addressing the administration costs involved in maintaining client PCs in a networked environment. Although not commenting directly on the NetPC or NC, Gartner Group estimates that ownership costs in well managed PC environments can be reduced by a significant 25%.
Siemens' machine, officially called the Scenic Pro Net 2, is likely to be just one of many NetPCs coming out in 1997. Compaq and Dell have already announced support for the initiative (see box).
However, users should be wary of the marketing hype surrounding these new devices. The NetPC is essentially a no-thrills attached PC. Siemens, for example, will offer an optional box with its Scenic Pro Net 2 for adding a floppy disk or CD-ROM drive, transforming it into a bog-standard PC.
The NetPC comprises two elements: one software and one hardware. The hardware side is the NetPC itself, basically a stripped down PC equipped with at least a 100MHz Pentium, 16Mb of memory, VGA display, internal hard disk for caching and some kind of network or modem connection.
The software component specifies either Windows or Windows NT. Windows NT 5.0 will encompass Microsoft's so called Zero Administration for Windows, a software specification which allows NetPC machines to be configured centrally from network servers. The next major release of Windows, codenamed Memphis and due at the end of the year, will offer some Zero Administration features such as automatic system updates.
Zero Administration will also allow organisations to update easily software on a user's desktop, so that the user always runs the most recent version of an application. It will also support roving desktops, allowing users to move from machine to machine within an organisation and keep their familiar desktop environment. Taking this a stage further, a system administrator could limit access to data and applications to particular groups or individuals.
Together, these measures will help to reduce support costs.
If the benefits of the NetPC sound rather like those claimed by Oracle and Sun for the NC, that's because they are. The NetPC initiative addresses the same limitations of the PC as the NC, but takes a slightly different approach to achieving them.
The inspiration for the NC model is the mainframe, but instead of having dumb terminals with green screens you have an intelligent device capable of running Java applications. All applications and data are stored centrally.
The inspiration for the NetPC, on the other hand, is the PC. The premise of the NetPC is that organisations are unwilling to abandon the huge investment they have made in Windows applications software and associated hardware.
Explaining his company's decision to back the NetPC, Peter Page, Siemens executive vice president, said: "At Siemens Nixdorf, we see the real megatrend in enabling users to decide what they want from their IT applications.
We do not wish to get involved in any fights about the right technology."
Siemens sees its approach to network computing as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, which is the case with companies such as Sun, IBM and Oracle.
Anne Mitchard, marketing manager for the desktop systems division at Microsoft, said: "The NetPC's core function in life is to provide uniform control of hardware configuration. There is nothing revolutionary about it. For all intents and purposes, the NetPC is a Windows-compatible PC with a sealed case design."
With the NetPC, users can continue to run the applications familiar to them. The Windows applications and user data is stored on a central NT server. When a user wishes to run a particular application, the software is downloaded over the network and installs on the NetPC's local hard disk. Strictly speaking, the user has no control over this disk. It is simply a cache for applications and data.
Sun agrees the NetPC and NC do the same job, but in different ways. Rob Bamforth, the company's Internet business development manager, believes the NC will not compete directly with PCs. To illustrate his point, he referred to the so-called power users, who would typically stick with PCs for applications such as CAD/CAM.
Bamforth believes the NC will sell into niches where computers are not currently deployed, and in areas where the full potential of the PC is not being utilised, such as data entry. He also feels the NC is a good candidate for replacing dumb terminals in the mainframe world.
In its November 1996 report, PCs meet NCs, Forrester Research concluded that NCs will replace dumb terminals and a few low-end PCs.
With the NC and NetPC set to occupy the same space in the market, which approach will prevail? While it's a little early to say, both models have their drawbacks.
One of the biggest criticisms of the NC is a lack of applications. Today, Corel, Applix, Lotus and Oracle are working to address this with the release of application suites written in Java (see Review of Corel Java Office, page 24). But compared to the mass of Windows applications available, supporters of the NC have a lot of catching up to do, although this will undoubtedly change over time, as more application developers see the benefit of writing cross-platform applications in Java.
Another problem with the NC is an apparent shortage of bandwidth. According to Microsoft's Mitchard, organisations planning to deploy NCs will incur huge costs because they will need to overhaul their network infrastructure to cope with the resulting explosion in network traffic. This is the reason the NetPC has a hard disk: to cache applications and data locally, thus reducing the strain on network bandwidth.
Sun's Bamforth disagreed. He said the company's JavaStation provides Flash memory which performs a similar job to a NetPC's hard disk, caching applications when they are downloaded over a network. Also, the applications are not lost when the JavaStation is powered off.
Bamforth also maintained that Java applications tend to be smaller than Windows applications because "they are written to a finer level of granularity".
Users get stripped-down applications, but all additional functionality is available as additional JavaBeans components.
Andy Bailey, a product marketing manager at Oracle, went further: "As far as I am aware, there is nothing in the NC Reference Specification to suggest there shouldn't be local storage." Bailey's definition of a network computer is: "Any environment that does not require local application data and storage."
The biggest criticism levelled at the NetPC, apart from its remarkable similarity to the PC, is the control it potentially takes away from end-users - one of the key advantages of the personal computer.
Although the threat of the NC is unlikely to pose a real problem for PC makers in the short-term, Microsoft and Intel are taking it seriously.
This is good news for users, as the industry wranglings over network computing has succeeded in putting the thorny issue of cost of ownership under the spotlight.
NetPC or NC?
How the PC makers are placing their bets
- IBM - Sun
- Acorn - Zenith
- Oracle (NCI) Supporting NetPC
- Compaq - Dell - Hewlett-Packard - NEC - Digital - Texas Instruments.
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