A year ago, the most frequently asked question was: 'What's this Internet/intranet thing all about then? Should we be using it?' Most of us have by now pedalled onto the Information Superhighway and have realised that, in among all that digital info-junk there must be some really juicy bits, if only we had the right browser. The search for the perfect Internet experience goes on.
But now the Internet question is fast being replaced by a new one: 'So what's a Network Computer, when it's at home?' For those of you who don't already know, a Network Computer (NC) is a TV set-top device, or a diskless workstation, or a PC designed for use on the Internet or ...
Those behind the NC reference profile (Apple, IBM, Netscape, Oracle, Sun) have preferred not to be too specific about this new generation of hardware, keen to stress that NCs will be cheaper than today's PCs - but even this is hotly disputed by those currently staying off the NC bandwagon.
Meanwhile, Microsoft was bad-mouthing the NC at every opportunity, reminding all and sundry that what users wanted was more access to more powerful software, not less. As recently as at the Comdex show in Las Vegas, Bill Gates was saying the NC would create problems by overloading network capacity.
But the debate has become more complex. Microsoft appears to want to have it both ways, having announced that it was teaming up with Intel and Hewlett Packard behind what it called the NetPC platform. This will be Windows-based and Microsoft says it will develop a special version of Windows that will require 'zero administration'. Clearly, the company recognises that one of the big attractions of the NC is that it is cheaper than providing PCs in an organisation.
Critics object that Microsoft's plan is too little too late. And that, although it will bring costs down, it still keeps software on the desktop, rather than downloading it as required from the Internet.
The NetPC announcement came one day before Sun launched its Javastation, which offers 8Mb of memory, built-in audio and a 100MHz Microsparc processor.
It will be priced at just over u500, or nearer u700 with a 14in VGA monitor.
This compares with the 16Mb, 100MHz Pentium-based NetPC to be launched 'some time next year' by HP. Javastation will not have slots for peripherals such as CD-ROMs and hard disks. Instead, applications written in Java will reside on a Java-enabled server along with user data.
The whole NC debate brings you to a natural follow-up question: 'Will the idea work?' Most analysts think that NCs will capture a small yet significant percentage of the PC market by the year 2000.
Microsoft's announcement was endorsed by Compaq, Dell, Digital, Gateway 2000, HP, Packard Bell, NEC and Texas Instruments. If they succeed in making customers perceive the forthcoming PCs based on the NetPC specification as being similar to the NCs that are now arriving, they will both muddy the NC waters and reduce the risks to their own operations. Expect to hear much more about what an NC is, and is not, over the next 12 months.
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