TECH TALK: The Network Computer: Browser as Network Computer?
A comment by Haig in response to one of the earlier columns in this series built on the idea of the browser as the network computer (NC): I think the NC is alive and will continue to grow in software, not hardware. The NC is basically the browser, a self-contained, thin-client network computer within our computers, giving us what the NC promised without the need to limit our hardware. And like another comment said, Google, Amazon, et al. are our services and they already push their offerings to our NCs, to our browsers.
So, is the browser the next network computer?
My thinking is that the browser as network computer approach may work fine in the developed markets where computers exist everywhere, but it is not good enough for the emerging markets, where the cost of the desktop computer continues to be an inhibitor. Of course, one could argue that the commoditisation in computing will ensure cheaper computers. This is just one part of the solution what is needed is a $50 computer (excluding display). It is highly unlikely that any existing computer vendor will make such a device because of the fear that such a device could cannibalise from their mainstream business.
There is a second reason as to why the browser as network computer may not be good enough. This is because of the fact that there is a huge library of applications (like Office suites) that already exists and these are not necessarily browser-based. Over time, they will be rewritten to make them Web-friendly. But for now, they need a rich client interface.
One could argue that the next users do not necessarily need the Office suite a web-based word processor or spreadsheet would work just fine. This is a plausible argument. But my counterpoint is that it will still take time for the web-based applications to offer the functionality of these applications, and a reasonable time and money investment needs to be made to make them web-based.
There is an alternative to run these applications on a virtual desktop on a network computer. This goes beyond the browser-only approach. The virtual desktop is what applications like Citrix and Microsofts Windows Terminal Services make possible. So far, they have been used to reduce the complexity of the desktop client and deliver computing from servers primarily in enterprise environments. What is needed is the same concept to large-scale public computing.
This can be achieved by three key components: a centralised computing platform (think of this as the grid), network computers, and software that enables the creation and delivery of virtual desktops from the server to the client. The assumption here is that there is always-on connectivity of the order of 128-512 Kbps between the network computer and the grid in the networks that are now starting to emerge, this is not an unreasonable assumption.
The virtual desktop could encompass the full desktop that we see on todays computers both Windows and Linux computers have this as the starting point for user interaction. The browser would be subsumed within the desktop. In addition, multimedia support would need to be made possible by using client-side processing wherever needed; this approach can then support video playback on the client side as also voice-over-IP.
A point to note in this approach is that this does not need the rewriting of any existing applications. The entire library of applications that already exist can be supported on the grid. Over time, as browsers support richer modes of interaction, it is entirely likely that the browser could become the only interface on the network computer. As such, the network computer could even make inroads in developed markets as an adjunct to existing PCs.
Tomorrow: The Four Devices
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