PC, NC or NetPC -- Can You Still See?

Alan Freedman takes on the Wintel world -- once again -- as he explores the underbelly of personal computing today.

by / August 31, 1997
We're in the Klamath generation now. What a great-sounding Darth Vader kinda name. Intel should have kept that code name for the Pentium II, because it sounds so much better than "I'll have a Pen - tee - umm -- too, please."

Actually I was hoping that Intel would have created the Sextium. In Greek numerals, sexta follows penta, and what a field day we writers would have had with that one. I guess Intel figured that out too.

Anyway, Pentium, Schmentium, call it what they will, Intel continues to take over the world of hardware, much to the chagrin of everybody on the non-winning side of the Wintel world. The Pentium II is running as high as 300MHz with 400MHz chips looming on the horizon. Put two, four or eight of these babies inside a server running Windows NT and you've got mainframe class processing cheaper than anything in the past. All the workstation vendors know it (Sun, Digital, HP, etc.), and they've watched the Wintel juggernaut relentlessly take more and more of their potential turf. According to Dataquest, in the first quarter of this year, UNIX workstations grew 10 percent, while NT workstations increased a whopping 242 percent. As they say, the handwriting is on the wall. It seems that everything Mr. Gates touches turns to gold, which is why he ticks off so many people.

Of course, the counter to all of this is the network computer (NC), touted with the greatest of zeal by Oracle and Sun, et al. It is most curious to watch this phenomenon that purports to take the Windows world and turn it into a heap of dust. IBM is also hot behind the NC. Of all the vendors, it seems to make the most sense for them. IBM can replace the last vestiges of mainframe terminals with NCs. IBM, of course, has a penchant for great vision and picking the next revolution in computing -- as they let the minicomputer and microcomputer sail right over their heads. They're not going to sit by and watch NCs take over without being right there to scoop up those big bucks. But if their customers buy IBM NCs instead of IBM PCs, isn't that a wash?

Nevertheless, the PC world is getting interesting. The anti-Wintel crowd is convincing most everybody that the Internet and Java are the second coming. The idea that a shrink-wrapped Java program can "run on everything" scares the hell outta Intel and Microsoft. We don't need Intel chips to run Java applications, and we don't need the Windows operating system. In theory, Java is the panacea we've all been waiting for in this business. But forgive me if I'm skeptical. For more than 30 years, I've watched every "panacea" simply become mainstream, sitting alongside everything they were supposed to replace. Perhaps if we were living in one of the solar systems Dr. Sagan so fondly pointed out to us, it might be a different story. Although our technology has improved dramatically, our ability to do things that make sense on this planet has not. For all the gains we've made, this fast-paced field only makes the rat race rattier. How come 250 million computers are making the world so productive that everybody is working harder and longer than they ever have?

The NetPC

Fighting hard to keep the Windows PC pure Windows, Intel, Microsoft and several PC vendors have created the NetPC. NetPCs are closed-box, Intel-based machines without floppy disks. They're priced competitively with NCs, but differ in two ways. First, they're Windows machines running 95 or NT. Second, although they don't have a floppy that lets you sneak in your favorite game or other little goodie, they do have hard disk drives, some with as much as 4GB, so Windows and Windows applications are stored locally on the NetPC. This is definitely not a "thin client."

The similarity, though, to the NC is in software administration. All the software comes from a central source. While the NC gets its software from the server every day, the NetPC gets its installations from the server when it needs it. When a NetPC comes fresh out of the box from the vendor, it downloads Windows. Thereafter, new versions of the software are downloaded to the NetPC. In the daily operation of running programs, the NetPC is just like any other Windows machine. But with a full-blown NetPC system in operation, the network will be able to figure out which PCs need upgrading and do it automatically, saving the network administrator enormous headaches.

The NetPC is a counter-counter measure, so it was cobbled together very fast to meet the Java-NC wave pounding the shores. All the pieces are not here yet. At PC EXPO this year, the only NetPC system that seemed to do what NetPCs are supposed to do was with the use of Intel's LANdesk Configuration Manager. This is a server that sits in the network between your application servers and your NetPCs. It allows a fresh, empty NetPC out of the box to boot and install Windows. It also presents the NetPC user with menus of available applications for installation. This hardware management is available today, but software-only solutions should become available from third parties. In addition, when Windows NT 5.0 and Windows "98" arrive, they will implement Microsoft's solution, known as Zero Administration for Windows, or ZAW -- Microsoft's umbrella term for "Gee, I guess somebody must run Windows in a network!" I dunno, BG. While you owned the whole world, you mighta thought about us poor slobs out here busting our guts over all the stuff you dish out, and the NC crowd might never have had a chance. What's the worst anyway? Bill loses a beeelion here, a beeelion there, and pretty soon he's losing real money.

Of course, Microsoft and Intel say the NetPC solves the administration dilemma, and the browser runs Java applications anyway. So you can have your network computer and your Windows computer all in one. The best of all worlds. A powerful argument, indeed.

Windows Terminals

Another approach to preserving the Windows PC is the Windows terminal. Citrix Systems Inc., of Coral Springs, Fla., is the developer of the Intelligent Console Architecture, or ICA, which it uses in its Winframe software. This is similar to remote control software, in which one user has keyboard input and screen output from another user's PC. ICA turns an NT server into a multi-user, timeshared machine. The server does all the processing, and the clients see only the screen changes, which, by the way, is a true thin client, because there is no data processing being performed. The NC crowd took the term "thin client" and switched its meaning. The NC is a "thin storage client," while the Windows terminal is a "thin processing client," the original use of the term.

For the past couple of years, Wyse Technology of San Diego, has used Citrix's ICA system in its own brand of Windows terminal hardware, called the Winterm. A single Pentium NT server with 96MB of RAM can support 15 typical Winterm users, and a quad-CPU NT server with 256MB of RAM can handle up to 60 Winterm users. Wyse includes a Java interpreter (Java Virtual Machine) in its Winterm 4000 line that turns it into a Windows terminal and NC all in one.

At PC EXPO this June, it introduced a very unique Winterm: a wireless, pen-based model that weighs 3.4 pounds and can last up to eight hours on batteries. Considerably pricier than the standard Winterm, it offers mobile Windows computing for users that need to move around a lot.

The Plain Vanilla PC

Well what can you say about the vanilla, bread-and-butter PC these days other than it's getting faster and cheaper, faster and cheaper. The old adage that "if the auto industry had done what the computer industry has done in the last 30 years, a Rolls-Royce would cost $2.50 and get 2 million miles per gallon" is true. But it's a half truth, the most powerful way to advertise. The whole truth is that we're driving 100 million miles per day, so it's costing us $80 a day in gas! The car may only cost $2, but the gas costs $30,000 a year.

There are two things driving the need for speed. One is multimedia. We crave pictures, not just text. We love sound, video and animation. The Internet would still be an academic network if Web pages didn't host graphics. Now, we're asking the Internet to become a multimedia delivery system. Combine that with our desire to scan file cabinets full of images into the computer, and we can never get enough processing power. The Pentium II is a Pentium Pro CPU with the MMX instruction set. MMX adds multimedia power to the base computer, and within the next year or two, more and more applications will take advantage of it.

The second reason we need more speed is we've got more amateurs programming. The corollary to Moore's law -- which states the number of transistors doubles every 18 months -- is Freedman's law, which states "more novices are programming every 18 months." Have we forgotten who gets to do program maintenance in the IS shop? It's not the creative geniuses, it's the trainees, the only ones we can force to do it. The same goes for the software developers. That means programs get worse, not better. Case in point: Six months ago, I was using a popular e-mail program on a 486/66 with no trouble whatsoever. I upgraded to the latest version of the mail client, because of a new feature in it that I wanted. Then I tried it. I typed. The screen stood still. Eventually, it caught up to me. Of course, this is quite ridiculous, because keyboard input is the least taxing thing on a computer that's doing NOTHING ELSE. Yet I had to upgrade to a faster machine to get the same typing speed. Sloppy programming, pure and simple. And the programming will get sloppier and sloppier as droves of new programmers take on the unenviable task of maintaining the software we know and love, or use to love.

Can't Get Enough

If we are ever to have our computers give us animation in realtime, audio as good as the radio, video as real as TV, the ability to talk to our machines as obedient servants ... if we are ever to achieve all these things while giving birth to new humans who grow up to become programmers, then we will need ever faster machines. The bottom line is this: There isn't a government agency, department, private business or home that is spending less today on computing equipment than it did five years ago. Every year, we are all spending more. Our requirements are going up at the same time that costs of the equipment are going down.

Don't be misled by all the hype and furor over alternative methods. They always take the focus away from the fundamentals. Good systems analysis and design is essential. A good working environment is essential. Good employee relations is essential. Human factors are more important than all the technology in the world.

Don't let the rat race get you down. Be creative. Relax. Go places. Laugh. And, be sure to eat good food!

Happy Computing!

Alan Freedman's Computer Desktop Encyclopedia on CD-ROM is "the" award-winning reference on the computer industry. It contains more than 10,000 definitions, illustrations, photos and charts and covers the industry from soup to nuts. Runs on Windows 3.1, 95, NT. Single CD-ROM $44.95. Annual subscription $64 (4x year). A floppy version is also available. Contact The Computer Language Company, 215/297-8082 (FAX 8424) or .

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