To Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, there is no question that machines represent the future. They just can't agree on which ones.
Ever since Ellison first outlined his vision of the Network Computer a year ago this month, the Oracle CEO and his frequent Microsoft nemesis have traded barbs over their respective philosophies and prophecies for computing.
Today, as if trying to find an audience who hadn't heard their oft-repeated opinions on the subject, the two men took their debate overseas. At separate times during the International Data Corporation's European IT Forum in Paris, the two squared off once again over the low-cost, stripped-down device designed to surf the Web and deliver email without memory or a hard drive. (Hear full CNET Radio coverage of remarks)
Ellison sees the Network Computer, which would run on Oracle software, as the computer for the masses. The NC wasn't developed to replace the PC, he said again today; it was developed to give 70 percent of American households without a computer access to the Internet.
"The PC is really a marvel, it's probably the most important invention of this half of the 20th century," Ellison said. "But 70 percent of the households in the wealthiest country in the world don't have a computer. People can't afford them and don't know how to use them."
Gates, of course, disagrees. He even attributed the success of the entire Internet to the personal computer--and, by not-so-subtle implication, Microsoft (MSFT).
"When people look back on today, they will say this was the period where computers not only had those small screens, but they couldn't talk, they couldn't listen, they couldn't see and they couldn't learn," Gates said. "What does it take to make computers do those things? It takes software and the performance that will allow those things to be done is becoming available."
But Ellison says the future of the PC won't reach its peak until it becomes as mainstream as the television and the telephone. And that, he said, won't be anytime soon.
"This age we're living in right now is called the age of television because that's how we all get our news," the Oracle (ORCL) founder said. "There will never be an Information Age until we have the kind of penetration in households of computers that we have with television."
The demographics of PC users also differ from the television and telephone market. Personal computers are owned predominantly by wealthy male consumers and are not made for mainstream America, according to Ellison.
Manufacturers, including IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Apple Computer, plan to ship different versions of the NC, including desktop, laptop, telephone, set-top, personal digital assistant, and pager models. And they will price them from about $200 to $800, Ellison said.
The machines will come with keyboards and mice but no hard drives. Users of the desktop model will be able to hook it up to a computer monitor or a TV.
In the meantime, Gates said, the PC will be "getting richer and richer."
Although he was talking about features, his prediction could have been taken literally.