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Who's who in NC's?
What do they each want?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

History up to the NC's, can give you an idea of the history that has lead to our "NC" revolution.

An NC (Networked Computer) is just a "little" computer, that gets all its information from a centralized "server". The NC does a little work on its own, but all information is stored on the server. It was first named by Sun, but the concept has existed for years.

Remember, NC's themselves are fairly low-ticket (low-margin) items (compared to "real" computers). So most companies will produce NC's as a way to sell something else that makes them more money -- like their Services, Applications or the Server Hardware and Software. Or some companies (Apple, Sun, etc.) will use NC's as a way to increase their market-penetration (market share) against Windows. Microsoft has the most to lose if NC's succeed.

What's an NC's explains what exactly an NC is.

So who's vision do we follow?

The problems is if you talk to different companies about "What's an NC?", you will get many different answers -- each biased towards the companies desires. For some reason all companies want to see the NC as their saving grace, and as a way to make themselves money (and lots of it). But it is interesting to contrast their different views on NC's.

Sun - They see an NC as a dumb, little, slow, ultra-cheap computer (under $500) that can only run Java. The NC would have no permanent local storage, and everything is clean and pure Java. The network passes all information as Java Apps. The NC will have a browser (written in Java), eMail package (written in Java), Database applications (written in Java), and a lot of other Java Apps and Applets (1). They are not letting the fact that there are no Java Apps/Applets of any value (yet), get in the way of their dreams. "Java Only" is their goal -- which reduces cost, and usefulness. For this concept to be viable, you are going to have to buy a complete System (from Sun), that does Everything you need it to do -- or develop those applications yourself (in Java). This concept isn't exactly "taking off" anywhere but inside the minds of marketing a business goons at Sun.

(1) A Java App is a stand alone application that behaves like any other application (just slower, because it's written in Java). The App has complete control of your system (just like any other application), and there is no real security. These Apps would be distributed inside a company (Intranet) -- but most people in the outside "internet" would not (should not) feel secure about running someone elses App (if they don't know/trust the company) that could to anything it wanted to their system (like deleting their files, or sending their personal information to the IRS).

A Java Applet is a small mini-App that can only be run inside of a browser, and has great security. The Applet can't trash your disk, can't access your personal information, or can't do most things that you might find useful. These are more likely to distributed to the outside world, and people shouldn't be scared of Applets because they are so much less likely to do anything of value. They are good for accessing centralized information, and doing some graphics (animation) and UI stuff -- but little else.

IBM - They makes heavy hardware (big iron). What do you want to bet that IBM's vision of an NC is closely tied to IBM's Big-Hardware? IBM sees NC's as what they are (the return of the smart terminal) -- but unfortunately, IBM can't see them as anything else. There are some differences (evolution and modernization of the concepts) between Smart-Terminals and NC's, but IBM wants the "good old days" when IBM sold 99% of the servers and 99% of the clients. The NC to them is going to be a smart terminal (close to Sun's view of the world), along with IBM servers. There will be no stretching of the boundaries to make anything useful -- they want to go back to the 370 server, with the 3270 terminals -- and JavaNC's on AS/400's is how they want to get us there.

Microsoft (and Intel) make PC's (or their software). They decided that that they had nothing ready to combat NC's and their usefulness (at least useful in a very limited way) -- and NC's can only really reduce their market share. Needless to say, Microsoft and Intel are looking for ways to maximize usefulness of PC's, and slow the road to acceptance for NC's.

Microsoft has never believed in doing something right (specializing for an individual task) when they can kludge something together (just add a feature to what they already have). Microsoft believes in generalization and the Swiss army knife approach to every problem, "Why make a screw-driver when you can pound screws, and pry them out, with a hammer?" There aren't many craftsman that use Microsoft products if they can avoid it.

When the rest of the industry started creating NC's (the concept), Microsoft decided they could solve the problem by making cheap (underpowered) PC's, that had some software to do a little more centralized control than a regular PC, and could run Java and have some web/internet functions built in. In other words, "all the cost of a PC combined with all the freedom and versatility of an NC."

Well a funny thing happened on the road to idiocy -- they got a lot of things right.

Since what people really wanted is cheaper machines, with more centralized control, and more ease of use and a wide choice of Applications, the NetPC (or NPC) makes a lot of sense -- far more sense than it has gotten credit for. They have failed so far, but mostly because companies have failed to offer a really compelling bundle of hardware and software -- and nobody trusts Microsoft (who has done business with them, or listened to them in the past) -- but the concepts of the NPC's are sound.

Who needs more all the computing power now days? We have performance oozing out of our ears. Most people aren't using a fraction of what they have -- what they need is more function, lower costs (initial and maintenance), and ease of use. They need to get on the internet, exchange some data with other computers, and maybe have enough graphics sex-appeal to play a few games. That is an NPC and is Microsofts vision of NC's -- just another PC that runs Microsoft Windows.(Their "Windows Everywhere" statements are not a joke -- it is their goal).

Oracle - They make centralized databases. Their leader (Larry "Big Mouth" Ellison) is a strong proponent of NC's -- because they will sell his database and administration software. Oracle is more pragmatic (and so closer to the goals of users) than Sun. Oracle doesn't care what programs an NC can run, as long as they come from Oracle. So Oracle's ultimate NC is ANY small computer, connected to any network, getting most of its information across the Network -- preferably using Oracle Applications (but there are no restrictions forcing them to be).

Ellison wants to write software that will let the NC access centralized databases (and Oracle makes databases), and write software that will manage centralized User-Control and Administration functions. His NC "Dream Box" could run Java, but could also run other Apps and another Operating System.

Larry Ellisons (and Oracle's) dream for NC's is far far closer to being useful than Sun's. Of course Larry's company doesn't make hardware -- so he is going to have a tough time pushing NC's until someone else makes them for him (2).

(2) Oracle's lack of a hardware division may have lead to a strategic alliance (or even merger) between Oracle and Apple. Apple makes the hardware, Oracle makes most of the software. Win-Win situation for both companies -- they compliment each other well.

Apple - They make hardware (integrated with software). What do you want to bet that Apple's vision of an NC is somehow closely related to Apple Hardware? Well, you guessed it. Apple sees NC's as any one of a variety of Apple Hardware Products, doing a variety of things. As long as it has got an Apple Logo on the front, then they'll call it an NC (client or server).

Apple is far more pragmatic about how to create an NC, and far closer to Ellisons' way of thinking (than Sun's) -- but Apple goes beyond Oracle's vision as well. Apple wants to use NC's to solve user solutions, and to do that users need Applications. Both new "Network" Applications (that may or may not be Java-Based), and to allow users to run lots of other Computer Applications. That will make the NC's useful to people NOW! This is why Apple's NC's are far more likely to succeed than Sun's -- and in many ways, Apple and Microsoft have far closer visions of what an NC should be.

The problem is that Apple is so pragmatic that they are offering a few fundamentally different ways to approach the problem -- and they are all "NC's" of some sort. This will confuse the marketplace -- but at least Apple has all the bases covered (and the outfield, benches and locker-rooms).

Apple is not against the Java-NC or lower end NC's (like Microsoft is) because it is no threat to Apple's "Office" Sales or Apple's other OS's. Apple is not against NetPC's (like Sun is), because Apple has Applications and OS's that run on NPC's (if they were Mac-Like). Apple is willing to partner with others -- while the others can't afford to too much. In many ways this gives Apple a pragmatism that gives them an advantage over the competitors.

So who's on first, what's on second?

So some alliances in the jockeying for position on NC's are automatic.

Sun-IBM is an automatic alliance of sorts, in that they see NC's as the same thing. The difference is that they both see them as running THEIR hardware. I wonder how long the alliance will last as soon as one of them starts eating the other ones lunch (and it will likely be IBM eating Sun's lunch). IBM has the muscle to make their NC's work, far sooner than Sun can -- and IBM has the sales-force and the name, and knows what solutions the customers need. If IBM wins in the NC-War, then it will be back to the old days. Either way this alliance it fairly weak because Sun has little to offer IBM -- and IBM is a big threat to Sun (as big a threat as the other competition).

Microsoft (the Hungry Ogre) plays well with no one -- they eat them (like WebTV). They want it all. They are fighting with Sun about Java, they don't belong to any NC committees (except their own) -- they will work with Intel a little (so that Intel can make the hardware), but only because Intel and Microsoft both have a vested interest in making NC's into a flop so that they can both sell more PC's (and Windows Software). I have a hard time trusting their sincerity -- even if the NPC is more valuable a concept (for now) than the JavaNC.

Apple-Oracle. Not only are the leaders of the two companies "best friends", but many of their goals just compliment each other too well. They are allies because of mutual needs and goals. Apple wants more hardware sales and attention, Oracle needs hardware to run more of their software. They will play nice because it is in BOTH their interests to do so. When you are on the bottom, you are willing to take risks -- so Apple has no fear right now. They will make all spectrum of NC's and let the market decide what they want. Because of the MacOS, Apple's UI experience, Apple's hardware experience, and Apple's penetration into schools, they are really in THE BEST position to exploit the NC hype. Oracle has the name in big business, and the sales-channel to make it work in Fortune500 and Big Business -- and a vested interest in doing so. This alliance can work, and there is a strong chance that in 5 years they will have a very strong presence (dominant position) in the NC market.

The only question left, is how big will this market be? (Do we really need NC's? Is the market open to them?) Logically NC's should be a large industry in a few years -- but business and education seldom let logic get in the way of their thinking (which is often based around politics and secondary power struggles).

This is going to be a fight (over the market), and all three groups are about equally balanced for this fight (position and PR) -- so it is way too close to call. The problem is that people will likely avoid the conflict out of fear -- if they do then MS/Intel wins. If the conflict just stalls things long enough, then Sun/IBM can get the JavaNC and Smart- Terminal concept along, that their marketing muscle can make big inroads. But if people are really open to the concepts, and can see the need for NC's in the near future, then Apple-Oracle is where I'd place my bet.

Apple/Oracle are going to make a serious moves in early '98, and that is when the real games will begin!

Created: 11/01/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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