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TECH TALK: The Network Computer: The Four Devices

October 12th, 2004 · No Comments

So, why will the network computer be the fulcrum around which this new computing platform will be built? We already have four devices the PC, TV, cellphone and gaming console. Why will it not be one of them? Let us consider each of them.

The two primary issues with the personal computer are affordability and manageability. In the developed markets, complexity and the cost of operation for computers is becoming an issue. In the developing markets, the cost is of utmost importance. Even today, a barebones PC in India costs about Rs 15,000 ($330). While there are ongoing efforts by companies like AMD and VIA to bring this price point down, that will only happen by impacting performance and user experience.

More than affordability, the more serious issue over time is going to be the complexity involved in managing the computer. Most desktop users run pirated copies of Windows, leaving them vulnerable to viruses and spyware. That could be solved with using Linux. But the issue of adding and upgrading applications and managing user data still remains. This is where a thin client network computer scores over the thick desktop. It brings both affordability and simplicity by centralising processing and storage, and making software delivered as a service from the grid. The network computer needs no management just like a telephone. If it stops working, it needs to be replaced, without fear of any loss of data since the user data is stored centrally.

So, can cellphones or PDAs be the answer? After all, countries like India have more than three times as many cellphone users as computer owners. I think not for a simple reason. The small input/output footprint of the cellphone and PDA makes it usable for niche applications, not for sustained work. Yes, the screens could become better and there could be keyboards attached but then we are no longer talking portability.

The cellphone is a personal device. It can complement the network computer, but it cannot replace it. In fact, the cellphone with a capability to attach to an external keyboard, mouse and monitor could double as the network computer and this is the directions I see network computers evolving in over time, as the incremental cost of adding communications protocols like WiFi or GSM/CDMA becomes close to zero. Until then, the cellphone will not be able to replace the network computer.

The third option is to use the TV connected to a set-top box. The problem in this TV-STB option is two-fold. First, the display resolution on TV does not compare favourably with that of a computer monitor. The TV screen also inherently limits the display to less than that of a 640×480 resolution (which could result in horizontal scroll bars for most web pages). While it is possible that these limitations may be overcome, the second limitation would then kick in. In most Indian homes, the TV is a shared entertainment device it is still not a personal device. As a result, using it for computing would be limited to non-TV watching times only.

It could be argued that given that people have no real options, they may prefer to use the TV-STB combo itself as a network computer. That could be especially true in light of the planned offering by Reliance Infocomm for Indian homes which would bundle a set-top box with a broadband connection. My feeling is that in these scenarios the TV would at best be used for entertainment-related functions. So, while this could be a possibility in homes, it definitely rules out the enterprise market. Given a choice between a TV-STB combo and the network computer, I believe people will increasingly opt for the latter.

The fourth device that is widespread in the developed markets in the context of entertainment is the gaming console. So, could the gaming console be the network computer? I think not. What the gaming console does is provides an alternative to the set-top box the display still remains as the TV. So, it suffers from all those limitations. In addition, the business model of the gaming console industry is to subsidise the console and make money off the software (games). That model is unlikely to work well in developing countries where software piracy is rampant. As a result, the game console cannot be subsidised and so its inherent price advantage disappears.

That leaves us with having to create a new device, the network computer.

Tomorrow: The Fifth Option


TECH TALK The Network Computer+T

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