As an idea, the network computer idea has been around with us for us for long. Its first manifestation was in the form of dumb terminals connecting to mainframes. It persisted with the use of the minicomputers. Then, came a paradigm shift with desktop computing all that the users needed was available locally to them. The desktop computers have driven the various cycles of computing since then, resulting in about 700 million users worldwide.
The idea of a computer connected and dependent on a centralised platform came back into vogue with the emergence of the Internet and web browser. Since Sun talked about the network as the computer and Oracles Larry Ellison touted the network computer, not much has changed for the most part, we still continue to buy and use desktop computers.
But there are now a few factors which could finally see the emergence of the network computer.
As a Business Week story put it recently, techs future is increasingly going to be dictated by the users in the developing countries. This is where the next billion users of technology are going to come from. For these users, affordability and simplicity are key requirements. The PC, with its dollar-denominated components, remains expensive for the significant majority of potential users in the developing countries. In addition, even after all these years, the desktop computer remains a complex device to master. For all practical purposes, the PC remains a developed market solution with a limited reach in the top of the pyramid of the developing countries.
The availability of high-speed, always-on communications networks is the second differentiating factor in todays world. Through a mix of broadband and wireless technologies, connectivity is increasingly becoming ubiquitous. Even in countries like India, data networks are pervasive Reliance Infocomm has enveloped hundreds of cities and towns with its CDMA data networks offering speeds of up to 144 Kbps. The telcos and cable operators are responding with the promise of broadband via their networks. Mumbai has started seeing ads promising broadband for as little as Rs 240 ($5) per month. Even though what is really on offer is always-on narrowband (128-256 Kbps) with limits on data downloads, this is a good start.
The third factor which is favourable for network computing is the availability of open-source software. The likes of Google, Yahoo, eBay and Amazon are Internet-scale platforms which have demonstrated the use of open-source software to build a massive digital infrastructure for their services.
So, a mix of a shift in markets and consumer needs, combined with the availability of networks and open-source software, is creating the environment for the (re)-birth of the network computer. Technologys next users in the worlds emerging markets, who so far only had a choice between non-consumption and piracy, will be at the forefront of driving this disruptive innovation, which will eventually make its way into the developed markets also. We are entering a world of service-based computing.
Tomorrow: Service-based Computing