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TECH TALK: The Network Computer: The Idea Returns

September 27th, 2004 · 1 Comment

Recently, there was speculation that Google was building a network computer along with its own browser. The New York Post wrote:

The broader concept Google is pursuing is similar to the “network computer” envisioned by Oracle chief Larry Ellison during a speech in 1995.

The idea is that companies or consumers could buy a machine that costs only about $200, or less, but that has very little hard drive space and almost no software. Instead, users would access a network through a browser and access all their programs and data there.

The concept floundered, but programmers note that Google could easily pick up the ball. Already, its Gmail free e-mail system gives users 1000 megabytes of storage space on a remote network providing consumers a virtual hard drive.

“I think a similar thing [to the got network computer] is developing in a more organic way now,” said Jason Kottke, a New York-based Web developer who follows Google’s moves. “People are ready for it. Instead of most of your interaction happening with Windows or Mac, you’re spending a lot of time with Google-built interfaces.”

News.com wrote: Google has also been rumored to be working on a thin-client operating system that would compete with Microsoft in areas beyond search. Techies have even discussed the idea of Google becoming a file storage system.

A commentary on ZDNet added:

What Google must do is get itself on the desktop. The obvious Google-shaped hole is local searching, where Microsoft has a history of conspicuous failure. A browser plug-in that amalgamated general file management with knowledge of Outlook, multimedia data types and online searching would be tempting indeed. Add extra features such as integrated email, instant messaging, automated backup to a remote storage facility and so on, and it gets very interesting. That would need considerable browser smarts, but would extend the Google brand right into the heart of the unconquered desktop where it would stick like glue.

By effectively combining local computing and the Web in this way Google would open up multiple revenue models. As well as advertising-supported and subscription services, it could start to offer very effective antivirus and other security functions–your data, safe in their hands–as well as any number of cleverly targeted sales opportunities based on what it knows about your personal file mix.

It would also remove one of the big barriers that stops people moving from Windows to open source. If all your important data has been painlessly stored on Google’s farm and there’s a neat, powerful Java browser-based management tool to retrieve it, you can skip from OS to OS without breaking into a sweat.

Google may not be the only one thinking about networked computers. A recent story in Business Week mentioned that AMD is planning to announce as early as October that it is teaming up with contract manufacturers to create an inexpensive, networked PC for sale in India or China. It’s part of [CEO] Ruiz’s ambitious plan to help connect 50% of the world’s population to the Internet by 2015.

So, is the network computer just a dream or will it become a reality? Given that we already have ever-cheaper computers, cellphones, TVs and gaming consoles, do we really need a fifth device? Will the network computer succeed in its second avatar? Is the network computer idea the harbinger of a deeper shift in computing?

As we seek to answer these questions, we need to first understand what a network computer is.

Tomorrow: What Is It?

Tags: Tech Talk

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