When Sun–and Oracle–first talked up the concept of the network computer in 1997, much was made of its potential as an alternative to a Microsoft-centric PC world. The general idea was to offer stripped-down access terminals that would connect to a network, where most of the computing muscle and complexity resides (a world presumably powered by big Sun servers, of course). Unfortunately for Sun, early customer enthusiasm faded after the price of many Windows-based computers fell below $500.
Sun may have been a victim of timing, but since then, a lot has changed. Microsoft, a convicted predatory monopolist, still grapples with its corporate image in the post-Enron era. Also, the software giant isn’t winning many friends with a new, more expensive licensing plan that many customers find onerous. All the while, Linux is getting a serious look in corporate America as an alternative operating system.
Although a low-end Linux desktop wouldn’t technically qualify as a network computer, it would be a means to the same end: Elbow aside Microsoft but keep rivals (such as Dell Computer) away from bread-and-butter accounts, such as call centers, which use Sun’s more-expensive servers.
Will it work? Assuming Sun doesn’t trip on its delivery, corporate customers might just be receptive this time around. And the clincher would be Linux.
The Network Computer concept is quite similar to what we’ve been working to put together with our Thin Client-Thick Server project. I think the time has come – but its important to keep in context the market one wants to address. It will fail if one targets the developed markets because there the issue is not the price of the computer but the support costs. The price is an issue in the emerging markets, and that is where the focus should be.
The TC-TS solution does three things:
– reduce cost of hardware by using (recycling) old PCs
– reduce cost of software by using open source on both the desktop and the server
– enhance manageability by centralising computing on the server
This is, according to me, the winning combination to ensure that computing goes mass market for the world’s have-nots – the next 500 million users.