The truth about the Network Computer

Nov 22, 2005. I wrote this article in 1997, and thought it was obsolete in 1998. With the rise of Google, Web Services, "Web 2.0", VOIP and television over internet, this opinion is fashionable again.

You're already using one

In March 1996, I went to Saint Louis for a conference. Itching to read my E-mail and wanting to look some things up on the web, I decided one day to take the train to Washington University in Saint Louis, go to the library, and find a computer running Netscape. I had no doubt in my mind at any time that I could walk into the library at WUSTL and find a publicly accessable computer with a web browser. Although I had never used Windows 95 before, using Netscape and Telnet were as easy as using them at home. I got the information I was looking for, used telnet to read my mail, wrote a few replies, and visited the zoo on my way home.

A public computer running a web browser is a useful thing; today, on a public computer, one can read current scientific papers, view maps of anywhere in the US with mapquest, buy things from the Internet Shopping Network and read news from sources as different as the Nation, CNN, and the Economist, as well as Peacenet. Search engines provide an almost magical facility for finding pages, often lovingly crafted, by individuals on specific subjects such as pinball, the recreational use of cough syrup, japanese animation, and the the sound produced by crumpling paper. Although some want to use Java for cosmetic animations and tickertapes, you can already download and run physics simulations, video games and even little productivity applications such as pocket calculators and text editors ; with a combination of Javascript on the client and PERL on the server, one programmer has made an appointment book acessable over the web. Radio and television aren't safe; you can already listen to a ball game if you have the right software. A web browser can already provide unlimited information and entertainment, and as technology improves and more content becomes availible, a dedicated public web browser will be able to provide services that everyone will want.

For all of the hype generated by the Network Computer (NC) announced by a coalition of heavy hitters in the computer industry; the NC reference profile doesn't contain a revolutionary word. The NC standard is a collection of protocols and formats already in use the on web. A web browser is the software that turns a computer into an NC; if you read the NC Reference Protocol yourself, you'll recognize that the computer you're using right now is already compliant.

NC anywhere

The announcement of a $500 NC has been greeted with ridicule by many people who already own computers; many people doubt that consumers would want to buy a specialized network computer when more powerful machines can be bought for not much more. The answer is that consumers don't have to buy them, although some will. Some people might want to have an NC in the house, but the best place for them is outside: at the corner store, the library, the airport and on the street. The NC doesn't just compete with the personal computer, it also competes with the pay phone.

Versions 3.0 of Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer will contain interphones. Both will be out by the end of this year, before computers marked "NC" are in stores. With a few years we are likely to see "Netscape Phones", ruggedized web-browsers with a telephone handset, a magnetic card reader and a coin slot. Maybe you wouldn't buy it... But you will be putting coins in it or swiping your credit card through it. People who already use the internet will be immediately comfortable with the Netscape phone; it only takes minutes to learn to use a web browser, so new users would catch on quickly -- many of them will want an NC for their home. With gateways between the internet and conventional phone networks, the Netscape Phone would be a phone. It would probably be competitive with a pay phone for local calls; since the cost of internet transmission doesn't strongly depend on distance, a quarter which buys you a three minute call across town would also buy you a three minute call to the US, prehaps even to Hong Kong. As computers get faster, software better and Quickcams cheaper, the Netscape Phone at the corner store might soon be a videophone.

Netscape Phones will replace other information kiosks. A mueseum would have a collection of web pages that could be accessed by people anywhere, even using Netscape Phones in the museum. Stores might have Netscape Phones scattered throughout for the use of both customers and employees. Netscape Phones at the airport would provide access to both the specific information about hotels, car-rentals, transportation and schedules as well as the greater web; you could make reservations online, with a customer service representation just a button push away.

The "coin-operated" NC doesn't even have to be coin-operated; just ubiquious. The lower we can get operating costs, the more ways people will make money off them. Just like 800 numbers you can call for free from pay phones, some web sites would reverse the charges. Like a phone, "911" calls would be free. The owner of a public NC could give you access to particular web pages for free; for instance, the local chamber of commerce would provide free acess to the web sites of local businesses from downtown coin-op NC's. A public NC could be partially or fully supported by advertising, or charge you for time on your credit card or through your ISP. Most of the objections to home NC's are irrelevant for public NC's. Since a public NC would be on all the time, the 13 minutes it would take to download a megabyte of system software over a 28.8 line isn't a bother. A public NC with a 28.8 modem would be fast enough to be useful; a public NC with a faster link divine. Of course it doesn't have to be a "Netscape Phone"; Netscape Phones might compete with Microsoft Phones, NC's may even give you a choice.

The network is the computer

I don't keep anything important on my home computer. Internet protocols make everything on the computers I use at school available to me wherever I am; I only need local storage home to save on loading time. Once the security problems are ironed out and Java gets a little better, many of our favorite applications will be applets. For instance, what if you favorite mail viewing program were an applet? You could click on a link on your home page and use your favorite mailer from anywhere.

We usually think of using the web to make public document, but with HTTP you can already protect a private page with a password. A magnetic card in your wallet could contact a server that contains your private information: your cookies, your bookmarks, account numbers, cryptographic signatures and your credit card numbers. Many companies are already interested in consolidating private information, such as i/CODE.1 When you swipe your card at a public NC and type in a PIN number, you would instantly call up your hotlist and open the security gates of your own web site -- with good security, you can keep all of your files and applications there. Suppose your word processor were an applet; within seconds you could be writing, revising, or printing from anywhere. HTML, VRML, Java and other technologies can provide a front end for computations performed at a server anywhere in the world. The network is the computer; the software that you're using right now will provide you with unlimited communication power and a unified interface to your information and software wherever you are: at home, at work, even at the park. Don't believe the hype; anything the media tells you is an underestimation.
1As of this writing (May 1998) this venture appears to be defunct.

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