NC v. PC 

Network Goliaths threaten personal Davids

Have standard personal computers become victims of digital obesity? Are they lumbering behemoths burdened by a maze of superfluous features and bloated applications?

That's what Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, the world's second largest software company, would have you believe. Beginning in the summer of 1995, Ellison -- who has a vested interest in such things -- began a spirited campaign for what he called network computers, or NCs, claiming that the PCs are causing untold millions of dollars in corporate losses.

Ellison claims that the tasks for which most people use their computers, such as word processing, web browsing, email, and accounting, do not require such a complex piece of machinery as today's PC.

Ellison predicts that NCs will outsell PCs by the year 2000.

That may be unrealistic, but the picture he paints is an appealing one. Rather than lugging your laptop around everywhere, imagine carrying a credit-card sized "smart card," which would allow you to access your personal and business files, send email, and browse the web from your hotel room, the airport or an information kiosk in the mall.

Ellison maintains that the PC has become hopelessly bloated: "You've got this hard disk that gets configured, and you have to load your software on there, and if the software breaks or gets a virus, you have to fix it. You've got to upgrade your software and decide when to do it; you've got to back up your data, and if your data gets lost, you've got to restore it from something."

According to Ellison, the solution to all these problems is the NC. An NC is basically a computer with a small processor, no hard disk, no expansion slots and no software. All data storage and software access relies on connection to a powerful server located somewhere on the network -- be it your internet service provider or corporate intranet.

Why would anyone want such a stripped-down PC?

Price, for one. NCs run for as little as $400 per unit, but the real savings comes in terms of maintenance. A PC in a corporate network environment may cost only $2,000 new, but can cost between $8,000 and $10,000 per year to manage, operate and upgrade.

NCs cut that cost drastically, since the only real maintenance required is at the server level -- the much more powerful machine that the network relies upon. This reduced cost is especially attractive for institutions, such as schools and libraries, which often have thousands of users who need access to the same data.

Ellison's Oracle Corporation is working on such a network for the Philippines' educational system. Using Oracle's industry-standard database software and servers, Ellison plans on demonstrating the NC's value by installing them in the entire nation's schools. The system will be up and running some time in 1998.

Their economic attractiveness may prove to be the real value of NCs: getting less-developed nations -- and the disenfranchised -- wired. After all, statistics tell us the average wired citizen is a white male who has a college degree and makes over $60,000 a year. Some real democratization is warranted.

Even for the digital elite, however, NCs may eventually become indispensable. The NCs on the market today, produced by companies such as Oracle, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Acorn Computing, all come equipped with a smart card reader, potentially increasing the ubiquity of the imagined NC infrastructure.

At this point, the PC market is in no danger of being overtaken by NCs. The falling cost of PCs combined with users' familiarity with popular software ensures that the PC will probably never be completely replaced by the NC.

However, one of the main hindrances to the NC's progress is simply bandwidth. In other words, few users will want to wait for their operating system, software and files to download every time they turn on their NC.

This doesn't mean that the NC is a bad idea. Many corporations already have such high-speed in-house networks that this download time will be negligible. Accordingly, it's the corporate interests, attracted by the cost-saving features of NCs, who have been the first to get onboard. Sun's JavaStation NC is already in use in more than 200 trials worldwide, including FTD Florists' worldwide network of flower delivery services.

The NC market is a nascent one. The next year or so will give NC manufacturers a chance to iron out the kinks, and software developers to fill the NC application void. Once those things happen, we are likely to see an explosion of growth and popularity, especially at the corporate level.

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