Death knell for the NC

If you blinked, you may have missed the coming and going of a wicked-huge, neat and cool new paradigm that never was. Yes, the sun is rapidly setting upon the network computer.

That is the same network computer that was on the cover of every trade magazine and business publication a short time ago. The network computer was going to be the answer to the oppressive cost of PC ownership, which pundits and network computer wags had pegged at something equivalent to the gross national product of Chile.

And for IS managers, the appeal of network computers was boosted by claims that deploying them would put managers back in control of end-user computing - control that was relinquished to PCs more than a decade ago. Applications and network access would be parceled out by IS.

Now it appears the network computer is destined for the junk heap of failed technologies - or at least vastly overpromised, underdelivered technologies. It's a poster child for the aphorism, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't."

Like many, I believed network computers would find a niche (and nothing more) in environments where end users require a handful of applications and not a lot of computational work. Order takers, reservations clerks, bank tellers and so on. But even those applications and those end users probably will bypass the network computer. Why?

For one thing, the network computer no longer enjoys a price advantage over PCs. A screaming, fully loaded PC costs less than two grand. Why spend nearly the same on a diskless piece of network overhead called a network computer?

More critically, however, the network computer was designed to have very little in common with the Windows world. The Microsoft haters - led by Sun, Oracle and IBM - saw to that. Awash in hubris, they not only (correctly) saw a great market opportunity in solving the cost of ownership issue, but they (incorrectly) saw an opportunity to topple Microsoft and (stupidly) ended up handing Microsoft another superb opportunity.

Specifically, end users with limited applications and computing needs are turning in droves to Windows-based terminals, often based on the network server technology of Citrix Systems. Call it Windows Lite. That technology gives users access to the Windows applications they love through low-cost terminals or old hardware. It gives IS the administrative control it likes to have, and it means IS doesn't have to deal with Java.

That brings me to the last reason the network computer failed. Early network computers that ran Java were unreliable and slow, particularly when users tried to download software. Some vendors began adding local memory to their network computer to address that problem. Suddenly, the network computer started looking a lot like a PC.

The network computer user pioneers who had their photos plastered all over the magazines now won't even talk about network computer plans - mainly because they aren't making them any more. "Bamboozled once again," is what executives at poster-child companies such as CSX Technology and Federal Express are probably muttering.

Thus, the epitaph: "Here lies the network computer, 1995-1998. A fundamentally sound idea that tried to answer a real market need. Waylaid by the politics of greed and irresponsibility."

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Bill Laberis

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