The Network Computer, derided by the big players last year, is being embraced as a robust alternative to the PC. Tony Durham and Tim Greenhalgh explore its rise
The personal computer fostered the World Wide Web. Now the Web has spawned a machine which could replace the PC. Network computers, diskless desktop machines with no application software permanently installed, have been bought by the thousand by United States companies. US universities have installed hundreds and this term United Kingdom students are getting their hands on NCs for the first time.
The NC was invented by Sun Microsystems. In 1995 Sun had won the Web community over to its Java programming language. Though many Java "applets" did no more than add a little animation to Web pages, Sun hoped that Java would soon be used to write full-scale application programs. Desktop computers would load software direct from the public Internet or a private intranet.
Sun took this idea to its logical conclusion. Forget installing programs off floppies or CDs: for the NC, the network would be the sole source of software. Java would be the universal language. A lot of PC baggage could be shed.
At first this did not look like a serious attempt to seize back the desktop from Microsoft. When Sun showed prototype NCs last year, the price was going to be about Pounds 1,000, depressingly similar to a PC. NCs would save organisations money, Sun executives explained, because they would need less care and attention than PCs during their lifetime. New software would be installed once only, on the server, becoming immediately available to all NC users. Users could not mess up their machines since an NC would return to factory condition each time it was switched off.
Software vendors Corel and Lotus both announced plans to write simple versions of their office software suites in Java. But the NC might have been eclipsed had it not won the passionate support of Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle Corporation, the world's second biggest software company. Ellison predicted that NCs could be produced for $500, and went around showing a prototype made by the small UK manufacturer Acorn. In a high-profile debate between the software industry's two most powerful men, Ellison hailed the NC as the PC's successor, while Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates rubbished the idea. But Microsoft was sufficiently rattled to propose a specification for a NetPC which could be used either as an NC or a PC, a dubious idea since such a machine would combine the disadvantages of both.
In reality the benefits of the NC do not have very much to do with the specific choice of Java as a programming language. The key concept is the "thin client", a desktop machine which relies on a network server for storage and, to varying degrees, for processing. The first modern thin clients were the X terminals introduced in the late 1980s. The real computing took place on a big shared Unix box, while each X terminal presented a mouse-controlled, multi-window user interface to its user. For users it was almost like having a Unix workstation of your own, but it worked out a lot cheaper.
More recently, Citrix brought thin-client computing to the Microsoft Windows environment with its WinFrame technology. Applications like Word and Excel run on a shared Windows NT server and are accessed from PCs, Apple Macs, Windows terminals such as the Wyse Winterm, or machines such as the IBM Network Station and Neoware Neostation which are combined Windows terminals and Java NCs.
Thin-client computing presents as many opportunities for the software industry as it does for hardware makers. "Over the past six months the computer industry has become very exciting in terms of architectures," observes Malcolm Etchells, marketing manager of SCO UK, the leading vendor of Unix for Intel PCs. Developed in Cambridge, England, and due to ship on Monday, SCO's Tarantella software allows users to log in to mainframe, Unix or Windows applications from anywhere on a local network or the Internet, using a username and password.
"We have enabled any application to be displayed on any Java-compatible client without a line of code changed," Etchells says. Attractive features for the academic environment include "resume and suspend" which would allow a student to log off in the library, leaving an application open, and then log on again from a hall of residence to complete the work without restarting the application. Anyone with Web access can test Tarantella at tarantella.sco.com.