Will Network Computers Rule?

The good news about network computers is that they have no local storage, use Java and snub Microsoft. That's also the bad news.

by / January 31, 1997
Oh for the simple days of mainframes when everything was hidden behind the glass-enclosed datacenter. When users didn't know an operating system from a serial port, and we didn't have to explain nothin' to nobody.

Now 80 million desktop PC users clamor for support as they work daily on their Windows applications -- undoubtedly the most complex computer system ever devised by a world gone high tech. If we thought DOS' AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files were difficult, we look back on those days with envy. We even thought WIN.INI and SYSTEM.INI were rough. Ha! Although any single environment can be mastered, few of us want to master them all. Supporting Windows 3.1, 95 and NT has become a huge expense. If you were on the cutting edge of NT, you may be supporting 3.51 and 4.0 as well.

What a perfect time for a breath of fresh air. Enter the network computer (NC). Time to switch from bloated Windows to a new paradigm. The "thin client" has come to save us. This almost-reminiscent-of-the-dumb-terminal stores nothing. It gets everything from the server and puts it back there. Users return to what they were paid to do in the first place rather than diddle around with installing programs, configuration settings and other bits-and-bytes trivia.

If we are to believe all the hype surrounding the NC, Microsoft finally loses its grip. It succumbs to the open, democratic world of the Internet where committee rules and cooperation is the name of the game. The World Wide Web has set us free.

The NC is a CPU and memory. It is designed to boot up with a very small operating system and a Web browser. The NC includes an interpreter for running Java applications. Hence, the NC is also called a Java machine. Java is an interpreted language designed to run in any computer that contains the Java Virtual Machine. Java programs are compiled into an intermediate language called "byte code," and it is the byte code that gets executed by the Java Virtual Machine, which is a fancy name for the Java interpreter. Since Web browsers with the Java interpreter are available for all major computing platforms, Java applications run in "virtually" every desktop.

Visual Basic also generates byte code. If there were Visual Basic interpreters for all the major hardware platforms, then Visual Basic would be just as virtual as Java. It's just that the Internet has taken a programming language nobody heard of two years ago and made it mainstream. By the way, Java was not created for the Internet. Sun developed it for PDAs, set-top boxes and other small devices. After the Web took off like a bat out of hell, Sun repositioned it as a new paradigm. Good timing.

The Internet spawns the Web. The Web gives birth to the intranet. The very thing that made this all so appealing was the ease with which we could create Web pages. But static Web pages were accused of being nothing more than interactive color faxes. Then dynamic HTML came along. Using CGI scripts that interface the page to a database server, we could search and query databases on the Web. Then browser plug-ins enabled us to implement audio, video, telephony and animated 3-D graphics.

That wasn't enough. The cry became, "why can't we write real applications for the Internet just like we can for other platforms?" Combined with claims that it costs more than $10,000 a year to support a user with a PC, Java was in the right place at the right time. Now, after spending a decade converting mainframe and mini applications to networks of PCs, we can rewrite all of our information systems over again. We sure have a penchant for keeping ourselves busy in this field. Guess it keeps us off the streets.

Sun says the NC is the future of computing. That's fitting. For years, Sun's slogan was "the network is the computer." Oracle, which designed the NC Reference Profile -- a specification that guarantees conformance to this new environment -- claims that up to 70 percent of all PCs will be replaced with NCs. Oracle doesn't sell NCs, it licenses the profile. It's also hoping to sell lots of NC Server software that links into the huge number of Oracle databases that are installed worldwide.

Larry Ellison, Oracle's chairman and CEO, claims the NC will totally change the world, saying: "The NC will change the way we communicate, the way we educate our children ... it will change our economy and our culture." Mighty bold predictions. Nevertheless, you will ultimately decide, so here are the pros and cons of this brave new world.

The Intranet
Intranets offer the ideal way of disseminating documents internally and externally through the hypertext links. Your intranet can easily reach the world at large (Internet) or connect remote users on a selective basis (the extranet). What's more, with Web browsers, your users intuitively know how to get what they need. The Internet/intranet/extranet is all that computing ever needs to be in the future. Why not have a machine dedicated to this 21st Century environment?

Java is the "universal client," which means that as long as the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is running in the client, it doesn't matter which CPU you have on your desktop. Conversely, if the JVM runs in the server, it can be from HP, IBM, Digital ... who cares. It's the universal runs-in-everything application environment.

Java is more secure than other programming languages. The JVM handles memory management, eliminating one of the major security breaches of programs compiled in C and C++. Users no longer have to be concerned about viruses when they run Java programs.

No Local Storage
The network computer has neither floppy nor hard disk. There's no chance of any user running the wrong version of an application, because it's downloaded from the server every time it's run. Everyone is calling this the "thin client" concept, although in reality, it's a diskless workstation with a built-in interpreter.

There's no doubt that there will be far less administration with the NC, and you won't have users running out to Egghead and sneaking in software that they like. You're in control.

No More Microsoft
Windows' days are numbered. Begone with Bill Gates.

The Intranet
There's no doubt users have caught onto the "click here to go there" concept of the Web. But applications are still the meat and potatoes of data processing. We make all the fuss over the umbrella environment and never enough over the thoughtless design of our menus, buttons and atrocious online help in our applications.

What makes us think Java applications are going to be better designed than Windows, Mac or UNIX applications? Who's writing them? Gnomes from another galaxy? It's the same programmers that wrote the ones we have today. Maybe if we screamed louder at Microsoft, Lotus, Corel and other software publishers, they might change the ratio of user interface design to programming from 5/95 to 50/50. Then, we wouldn't have to reread the same mindless help paragraph 20 times to understand it, and they wouldn't be drowning in tech support. What makes us think embracing an intranet running Java applications is going to change the fundamentals?

Interpreted languages are always slower than precompiling source code into machine code. Even Just In Time compilers, which compile all the byte code into machine code before running it, are still slower than native code. Nothing's faster than native code.

Hasn't anybody heard of multimedia? High-bandwidth graphics, audio and video takes beaucoup processing. We're finally getting goose bumps watching video on our PCs, and now we're going to slow it down with an interpreter? Vendors will sell performance by offering native versions of their software. Then we're back to where we started -- platform-dependent software. Sun is developing native Java chips that execute byte code directly. That will definitely increase performance, but, once again, we become dependent on one CPU type.

Then there's simply the fact of learning a new language. Haven't we labored enough learning C++? Java is just as obtuse for the human brain to encompass. As if recruiters don't struggle enough finding an Oracle, Visual Basic and C++ programmer, now we add Java to the mix. We could have all stayed with IBM 1401 assembly language, probably one of the finest programming languages ever developed. Never heard of it? You might have been in diapers.

By the way, Java security has already been broken. Just tell the world we have a secure system, and perverse hackers will surely prove it ain't so. Who are we kidding? We'll always have to run some authentication system in this depraved world.

No Local Storage
Hast thou forgotten how many IS managers were boiled in oil because they wouldn't let users have personal computers? How do you predict the future workflow for all the users you're putting on network computers? With countless Windows applications available to do absolutely everything, are we now going to wait for their Java replacements and experience Version 1.0 all over again?

No local storage means heavy demands on our networks. If we save a bundle on our client machines only to spend it beefing up our networks, are we really ahead fiscally? By the way, the NC Reference Profile does not exclude disk drives. They may wiggle their way back, boosting costs again. NCs also have smart card slots for login verification. Hmmmm, another way possibly to sneak data into the little varmints?

No More Microsoft and Intel
No more Wintel? Life can't get worse, huh? Do we honestly believe there will no longer be dominant players who become the bullies on the block? As for "open systems," witness UNIX. More attempts to unify UNIX have failed than Carter had liverpills. Why? Because UNIX runs on everything. The PC is successful because it runs on Intel chips and its clones. Period. Machine language sets the standard ... it always has. The NC is designed to run on everything. In a cooperating world, this would work, but have we forgotten what planet we live on? Shades of UNIX all over again.

IBM's incarnation of the network computer is very interesting. The IBM Network Station can host the Java Virtual Machine and be a Web browser, but it can also be a mainframe terminal, AS/400 terminal or an X terminal all in the same beast. For Windows shops, the Network Station can run Windows applications off an NT server using Citrix's NT multiuser software, which sends screen changes only to the terminal, and all the processing is done in the server.

IBM's introduction makes a lot of sense. If you're the typical IBM shop running a mix of mainframes, minis and Windows PCs, you should look at the Network Station even if you're not interested in NCs. This versatile unit, which starts at $700, is a viable terminal replacement.

Wyse Technology also has an interesting offering in this arena. Its Winterm 4000 machines combine Java/Web browser and Windows processing. Actually Wyse has been offering its Winterm series for more than a year without the Java add-on. Once again, using Citrix's software on an NT server, which makes it a multiuser fat server, you can run all the Windows applications you want by sending only the screen changes to the Winterm terminals. Winterm terminals without Java cost as little as $500 each. You can attach a ton of them to a four- or six-CPU NT server and achieve the same "zero administration" environment that is highly touted by the network computer. If you want to connect to the Internet/intranet, the larger 4000 model does both. This is an option that preserves your scazillion-dollar investment in Windows.

The NC offers a very viable option for highly vertical applications or in environments where you can plan exactly what your users need. The NC might also be more economical than a PC for replacing dumb terminals as well as 3270 and 5250 terminals. But this is a new computing environment and you will have to ensure that applications are either available or will be written in sufficient time to meet user requirements. Your technical staff will have to learn new hardware, new software and new programming tools. You have to weigh those training costs with all the supposed money you are saving.

The real caveat, however, is that if you plan on network computers to rid yourself of the evil empire, you may be misled. Windows PCs have access to everything the NC has to offer plus the world's largest base of applications. Although there are not as many shrink-wrapped packages, this is also true of the Macintosh. You don't have to have an NC to take advantage of the Internet, the intranet and the extranet.

Whether the NC takes the world by storm or not, it is still a blessing. It is forcing Microsoft and Intel to wake up and pay attention to system administration, which they have foolishly neglected for years. Now comes their NetPC and "zero administration" announcements. These are knee-jerk reactions to the NC -- little more than slimmed-down PCs and a first attempt at ensuring applications are automatically kept up-to-date on the network. But the NC has sounded a loud trumpet into the ears of the Wintel monopoly, which should benefit us all.

One thing I've learned in the 36 years I've been in this field is that most every introduction that professes to change the world eventually becomes mainstream and winds up coexisting with everything else. Once a major investment is made in any standard, it hangs around longer than anyone would have imagined. Half-inch open-reel tape drives are still being manufactured. And NCs are going to replace Windows?

If the NC catches on, it will wind up becoming much more complicated. Just give it five or six years and you will have one more tangled maze to support along with your Windows and DOS PCs, Macintoshes, workstations, UNIX servers, minis and mainframes. Just remember ... too much Java may keep you up at nights.

Happy computing!

Alan Freedman's Computer Desktop Encyclopedia on CD-ROM is "the" award-winning reference on the computer industry. It contains more than 9,000 entries from micro to mainframe and includes technical drawings, photographs and charts. It covers the industry from soup to nuts. Runs on Windows 3.1, 95, NT or Mac Softwindows. CD-ROM $44.95, floppy $34.95. Annual subscriptions $64 and $54. Contact The Computer Language Company, 215/297-8082 (Fax 8424) or .