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Steve Bush spoke to Acorn's Peter Bondar about network computers

The network computer idea has been maturing and changing continually since it was originally suggested. The idea, an intelligent device with its permanent storage located somewhere at the other end of a network, shares aspects of both PC and main frame-dumb terminal technology.

Oracle, with chairman Larry Ellison, isolated the network computer as a separate class of device and is now promoting it. Since Ellison first floated the idea, a lot of marketing, market research, trialing and even some selling, has occurred. The result is that the shape of the potential market is beginning to appear.

The UK's Acorn Computer has developed reference designs for Oracle, so who better to ask about the future of the network computer?

"The market for network computers, which we call network appliances to differentiate them from Oracle's Network Computer product, has separated into four areas which are, to some extent, geographically dependent. They are Internet televisions, portable appliances for mobile professional workers, corporate network computers and low cost computers for the developing works and education," said Peter Bondar, director of Acorn's Risc Technology division.

Network Appliances

Of these areas, Internet TVs are the most developed and the most straight forward. Bondar said: "Internet TVs are just that, a television that is capable of browsing the Internet and exchanging e-mail. Currently this means that they are a TV, with a mains powered set top box and some kind of keyboard. The box connects the TV with a phone line and the keyboard, and usually has a printer port."

In addition to casual browsing, the Internet TV opens the door to home-shopping, including immediate services like ordering home delivery pizzas and video cassettes through the Internet.

In future Bondar thinks the internal processing requirements of Internet TVs will climb. "The reason is video and audio conferencing. Existing TV appliances need about 50mips, from something like an embedded ARM7500. The next generation will need between 200 and 400mips to allow you to look at the guy who is taking your pizza order."

The second type of network computer is the mobile appliance which is aimed at the same market as the laptop PC.

Bondar said: "There are a couple of Japanese companies due to bring out products around the end of this year and some from America with telephones built-in."

Function is predicted to be biased towards communication. "Mobile appliances will have e-mail, videoconferencing and telephone facilities, combined with normal laptop functions."

Being a network computer, most data storage will be remote with only a limited requirement for local non-volatile storage. "RAM or flash on a PC Card will replace the hard disc for non-volatile storage. Even with a colour display, reduced power consumption should bring battery life up to between eight and 12 hours in a 1.5 to 2kg unit."

Will they run Windows. "No, not primarily, although we have technology to run Windows if the network has a Windows NT server on it," said Bondar.

The final two types of network computers are both desktop varieties. In both cases, that for the developing world and education, and that for corporate use, the projected advantage of the network computer is reduced cost. Of these, the developing world-educational network computer is the least controversial.

Bondar said: "It will be like the Amstrad PCW revisited. Developing countries and educational establishments have similar requirements. They want acceptable function at low cost. Whilst a user may need a spreadsheet, they won' t be demanding Excel. Something like 80 per cent of the capability of a PC at one third of the cost will be acceptable. It should do a lot on its own, perhaps 15 pages of word processing."

Again, e-mail and Internet access are on the list of capabilities, along with spreadsheet and word processing.

The aim is to make these computers locally. Bondar said: "The cost has to be low. A small hard disc, 4Mbyte of RAM and a SVGA [800 x 600] monitor based on TV technology, so that it can be mended locally, is the sort of thing that is needed. The motherboard should be around $100 including Ethernet or a modem. Not having a power hungary processor means a 25, rather than 200W power supply."

Will Intel get there first? "Developing countries like China India and Malaysia will be producing these in big factories where you pour oil and sand in one end, and out come computers at the other. There is no benefit to be gained by following the Intel architecture for economies of scale," said Bondar: "But most of the choice will be political. In China there is only one computer for every 2,000 potential users. Intel and Windows havn't got into the culture yet. There is also a feeling, voiced in private, but not in public, that no one wants to be dependent on the US for IT resources."

Lastly, there is the corporate network computer. Bondar said: "No one can predict what this is going to be. It is competing with Intel and Windows on its own ground. Getting in to Times Top 1,000 and Fortune 500 companies against the PC on enterprise networks. It is all about fear, uncertainty and doubt. Talking to these companies, I get the feeling that they want something close to 80 per cent PC to think about trying something different," explaining: "Its like selling a gas turbine someone using piston engines. The turbine doesn't have cubic centimetres and brake horse power. Even the language is different.

This, claims Bondar, is behind Oracle's Ellison's recent public conversion to Intel processors for his corporate network computers. "Saying Intel Inside can be perceived as part of the way to running Windows software. Even though the corporate network computer is Unix-based and wouldn't know what to do with Windows software. If it could run it, it would be as expensive as a PC. Ellison is trying to gain critical market acceptance. A lot of it is smoke and mirrors."

Talking heads on NCs
Exchanging images of conversation holders is a key part of the network computer ideal, particularly with mobile appliances and Internet TVs.

Processing images to send them down a phone line, but maintaining an acceptable quality while keeping costs down to consumer levels is a tricky three-way balancing act.

Acorn's Peter Bondar said: "Mobile use restricts bandwidth to GSM's 9.6kbit/s. This is far too narrow to use general purpose video compression techniques like MPEG. Working in our favour is the image type which of somebody speaking. The challenge is to get an acceptable fram rate and image size."

Acorn is developing a suitable algorithm. "It runs on a StrongARM [around 200Mips]. In the past 18 months, our frame rate has increased from two to 20frame/s and I think it will be the summer of 1998 when devices with an acceptable quality for consumer use become available," said Bondar: "Between then and now there is the standards issue for low bit rate images to resolve. We are starting discussions in Japan about this."

As an aside, Bondar said: "It is remarkable that engineers, who understand the difficulties involved, are much more tolerant of poor images than most consumers."

This article first appeared in Electronics Weekly