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Vol 2, No. 1
JANUARY 15, 1997

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Back to the Future:
NCs- The End Of Personal Computing?
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-- By Nathan Newman, Progressive Communications
newman@garnet.berkeley.edu


 
In May 1996, a new alliance of Netscape, Sun Microsystems,
Apple Computer, IBM and Oracle jointly announced the
specifications for a new standard of computing, the network
computer. In this announcement was more than merely one more
corporate alliance but a fundamental reorientation of computing,
and, in some ways, a return to an vision of computing from before
the advent of the personal computer. This proposal was the
long-time culmination of the Internet with four key Silicon
Valley companies (with IBM essentially tagging along) working to
ride their long-time expertise in order to retake control of the
desktop.
Instead of processing power being concentrated on the desk
with software individually installed on each computer, the
network computer would be an inexpensive customized processor in
a box which would access CPU power over the Internet or local
Intranets, downloading software "applets" as needed from a
centralized server. Priced under $1000 (hopefully as low as
$500), such network computers would be more economical in both
homes and offices than the traditional personal computer. What
these companies proposed was nothing less than to kill the
paradigm of personal computing that the Bay Area itself had
introduced nearly two decades before.
At one level, the announcement was an obvious strategic move
by the companies involved to best their common rival Microsoft.
Microsoft was officially invited to join the group, but declined
for obvious reasons, since the clear goal was to destroy
Microsoft's and Intel's duopoly control over the home and office
desktop. If most computing power was to be located in the
network, there would be no need to constantly upgrade to a faster
(read Intel) processor; instead, offices or homes could simply
subscribe to higher levels of processing power as needed (or as
developed by server designers). Similarly, the network itself
would be responsible for upgrades in operating systems and
application software, so there would be no need to constantly buy
upgrades of (read Microsoft) operating systems and applications.
The overall goal was, as Sun had argued in advertising, to make
the network the computer, thereby maximizing the resources
available to each user and allowing constant upgrading of those
resources at a central location as technology advanced.
Each of the companies involved in the Network Computer
(along with the many more who would immediately signup in
support) had more than a theoretical interest in replacing the
personal computer. With its whole business strategy tied up in
the Intenet, Netscape had the most obvious stake in preventing
Microsoft from using its dominance of the personal computer to in
turn dominate other Internet-based tools. Apple and IBM had
both, in their own way, lost the personal computer market to
Microsoft. Despite four million computers sold worldwide by
Apple in the previous year, Microsoft's dominance of the desktop
was clear enough that even Apple loyalists have been pronouncing
the company on its deathbed. With Microsoft's control of the
Windows operating system, IBM had been reduced to being a clone
maker for a computer once described as being "IBM-compatible."
With no room to innovate given Microsoft's absolute proprietary
hold on the operating system, IBM's $6 billion a year research
and development budget has been nearly useless in the personal
computing market.
Sun Microsystems, in many ways the linchpin of the alliance,
sees the faceoff with Microsoft in nearly religious terms. With
Windows NT machines increasingly penetrating the network server
market that has traditionally been Sun's stronghold, Microsoft
has been emerging as a clear and present danger to the UNIX
workstation standards that Sun had worked so hard to establish.
Larry Ellison's Oracle saw itself under direct assault as
Microsoft software began invading the server computers that had
been Oracle's domain.
At another level, the whole Network Computer announcement
can be seen as the revenge of the Information Systems directors
of corporate America. Keeping hundreds, often thousands of
separate desktop computers functioning and upgraded each year has
become a wearing and costly ordeal for many companies.
International Data Corporation has estimated that network
computers cut as much as $2500 from the yearly $5713 per year
that most companies spend maintaining each personal computer.
Many analysts blame the high costs of constantly upgrading
personal computers for the fact that computers have shown up
everywhere except in statistical gains in productivity. The idea
of being able to upgrade each NC from centralized computer
resource centers or even the Internet is incredibly attractive,
especially for companies with more routine computer needs by
their employees.
But beyond the strategic or economic reason for the
appearance of the Network Computer concept, it can be seen as a
reuniting of the Internet and individual computing--each born in
the early 1970s. Many people familiar with history know about
the role of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) as the
creator of the first true personal computer back in 1974, but
fewer are familiar with what was in many ways its parent
organization, the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at
Stanford's SRI research unit. While Xerox is often credited with
innovations like the computer mouse, windowing environments, and
word processing software, those tools were actually borrowed for
the personal computer from ARC's work in enhancing productivity
within a timeshared environment.
ARC had been the brainchild of Doug Engelbart, who had
started pursing his vision of collaborative computing since his
hiring in the 1940's at Ames Research Center and he had come to
SRI in 1957. There he would receive a small initial grant from
the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research to pursue what
Engelbart called an "augmentation laboratory" to explore how
people and computers could share knowledge. He would publish his
ideas for using computers not just for the traditional
computation and data processing for which they were currently
used but as a tool that could act as an adjunct to individual
creativity and as a link between human beings. While broadly
ignored, it paralleled the ideas of J.C.R. Licklider, who had
recently been recruited to the Defense Department's Advanced
Research Projects Agency (ARPA), who were the chief funders of a
range of breakthrough technology. ARPA would fund Engelbart's
project with a million-dollar timesharing computer plus half-a-
million dollars to staff and run his proposed laboratory. Out of
Augmentation Research Center (ARC) would come an array of
researchers who would go on to become leaders of their own
research teams at universities and commercial R&D divisions in
the region and across the country.
By 1968, Engelbart would publicly be able to demonstrate his
new tools, ranging from the mouse to windowing environments to
sharing information through hypertext. And in in an age when
most programmers were still interacting with computers through
punch cards, Engelbart's demonstration of word processing was a
revelation. What was demonstrated was only the showiest example
of a set of tools developed to facilitate communication and
shared information-based work among intellectual collaborators.
ARC was already using text-editing to share common data through
hypertext storage (the method of linked pages used later in the
World Wide Web) and ran an electronic mail communication system
with dedicated e-mail distribution lists among the researchers--
all of this years before these innovations would come to the
Internet. ARC would also pioneer video-conferencing years before
it was developed commercially.
In that same year of 1968, ARPA asked Engelbart to make ARC
the Network Information Center (NIC) for the newly planned
forerunner of the Internet, the ARPAnet. Engelbart saw the
ARPAnet as the perfect vehicle for extending his vision of
distributed collaboration, so in 1969, SRI would become the
second computer connected to the ARPAnet. As the NIC, Engelbart
would help identify and organize electronic resources on the
Internet for the easiest retrieval. Until 1992 (when the NIC
functions were awarded to other companies), the function of the
NIC at SRI would include administration in assigning IP network
addresses and domain names for all servers, essentially creating
the yellow pages for the Internet.
When PARC was established in the early 1970s, mostly with
ARC and ARPA alumni, it turned away from centralized timesharing
computers key to Engelbar's tools towards a vision of maximum
computing power on each desk. The absence of a broadly available
Internet made such a movement to personal computing the natural
development, especially with the appearance of Intel's new
microprocessors, but personal computers may be seen as a two-
decade long historic detour from Engelbart's original vision of
collaborative computing. Because of budget cuts at ARPA in the
mid-70s, Engelbart's lab was defunded and SRI sold his work (and
Engelbart as a consultant) to an outfit called Tymeshare, but he
continued to pursue his vision and in the late 80s restarted his
lab under the name The Bootstrap Project, of which Sun and Apple
are not coincidentally two of the main funders. .
Reacting to MIT studies in the 90s that have showed
technology having dramatic effects on productivity in specific
work situations yet having little, even negative effects on
productivity overall in society, Engelbart himself has emphasized
his nearly half-century long frustration that so much of the
focus in implementing new technology has been on automating
existing individual tasks rather than using the technology to
augment human capabilities and networking in truly new ways. As
the Internet reunites the desktop with central bodies of
knowledge and electronic tools (with the Network Computer being
one implementation of that reunion), we may begin to see the
productivity and social gains long promised from technology.
Whether the final technology are stripped-down personal
computers, network computers, or ubiquitous "information
appliances", what is clear is that computing power and its
associated software tools are fleeing the desktop for the global
set of information tools originally envisioned in Engelbart's lab
three decades ago.

 

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