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Clearing up misconceptions about the Network Computer
as seen by Oracle

Ever since Oracle Corp founder Larry Ellison introduced his concept of a cheap $500 networked computer last year, the market has scrabbled to work out what the device will actually do. Now the company has begun to fill in the blanks and it becomes apparent that the device won't only be for consumers wanting Internet access, electronic mail and word processing. Indeed such a terminal will be only one in a family of devices, each configured for a specific function: some for communication, some for information browsing and others for entertainment. Oracle is planning a small hand-held device, like a Personal Digital Assistant, that communicates via cellular networks. Oracle reckons it will will be more widely used than current Assistants because it will integrate with existing personal computer- and server-based information. A two way pager is planned too, which will send and receive electronic mail and select data such as stock quotes. Finally, the set-top box will be for use with a television set to give access to interactive services.

Slim-line system

But the devices everyone is talking about are the ones for home and office Internet access, electronic mail and word processing. Each will have a simple operating system to manage network access and the data downloaded. Because it doesn't need to manage so many peripherals it can be a slim-line system which will use less power and memory, says Philip Crawford, managing director of Oracle UK. The amount of memory will vary, but Crawford believes between 2Mb and 4Mb is about right, with some having Flash memory for durable storage. The Network Computer won't need permanent storage since data and applications will be kept on the central server - offered by a service provider for the home or on an in-office server for businesses. The first machines are due around September. Last month Ellison said the Network Computer would come with a free suite of Java applications. "We are writing a Microsoft Office-comparable suite in Java and it will ship free with every Network Computer," US PC Week quotes him as saying at the Upside Technology Summit in Carefree, Arizona. "The applications will be a lot easier to use, and will run on any machine supporting the Java language." The system will have an open application programming interface, and it will be processor- and operating system-independent. The first ones will use either ARM RISCs or iAPX-86 chips. Price, ease of installation and maintenance will be the big selling points, Oracle hopes.

By Abigail Waraker

'Changes to software applications, including bug fixes and upgrades, will be made on the server. For the user, changes will take effect the next time the device is activated,' states Oracle's White Paper on the Network Computer. The Network Computer is not intended to do what a personal computer does. "The personal computer is a general-purpose machine and not designed for simple tasks. It has become more powerful and more costly," said Crawford. "The personal computer is good for file back-up and complex development work." The Network Computer will be a cheap device for people who don't need that everyday processing power. It will do spreadsheets and word processing or enable every worker to have a machine on their desk for electronic mail. Not only will the Network Computer reduce the initial investment cost, it is claimed to be cheaper to run because it won't need maintenance support. Oracle bases its case on figures showing that a single office personal computer costs $8,000 a year to maintain. But the network will take on the burden the personal computer sheds. More traffic will zoom around it. Data processing managers may need to invest in the network to support new demand and repair the network rather than the personal computer. Maintenance costs maybe shifted, not cut. Networks can be flaky. Even Crawford admits that "the network is the creakiest part of the whole set-up." If a local net goes down now and word processing software is stored on each personal computer, users can continue on typing and be annoyed because they can't get database access. If the word processor is on the central server, users' hands will be tied. The home user will rely on his standard phone or cable connection for network access to a server. Someone like an Internet service provider, telephone or cable company will maintain a database of software and the user will pay for the download time as he calls software into RAM and the upload time as he saves a document back to the server. "Currently, if someone wants to use spreadsheet software once a month, they have to buy it," said Crawford. Although at this stage the cost of an account with a service provider is unknown, so the real savings can't be calculated. Internet access can be notoriously slow. The average home user, who until now has been discouraged from home computing by the high initial outlay on hardware is not going to pay out another #500 or so for a faster ISDN connection. Oracle counters this. Bandwidth is increasing and costs are coming down all the time. But faster networks may take longer to arrive than the Network Computer.

Universal server

"Maybe [the telecommunications companies] would decide the volume is worthwhile and once there is demand, prices would come down," Crawford said. Oracle is talking to network providers because they are interested in the technology, he said, but the technology isn't dependent on a deal. At the far end of the network is a server - and Oracle hopes it will be its own Universal Server, to be previewed at CeBit this month. In it is the Universal Database, which will store distributed objects accessible to Network Computers. The Universal Server will be sold to content service providers or organisations wanting to recast their data for the Network Computer. The database will support creation of HyperText Mark-up Language and Java objects. Oracle wants to use the Network Computer to reach current non-computer users at a low cost of entry, but even its White Paper says given the bandwidth limitations on the World Wide Web, the initial primary market will be corporations with their own Intranets. In other words Oracle is hoping that the corporates - many of whom were too nervous to upgrade to Windows95, will throw out the whole personal computer.

By kind permission of Computergram International, 7/3/96