NCs and PCs fight it out

Comdex One thing is certain: The network computers are here and in force. What's not certain is whether the svelte client machines will win a prominent place in the corporate IS arsenal or simply become a Comdex footnote.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
4 min read
Comdex LAS VEGAS, Nevada--One thing is certain: The network computers are here and in force.

What's not certain is whether the svelte client machines will win a prominent place in the corporate IS arsenal or whether they will simply become a Comdex footnote, relegated to the dustbin of products that never made it.

The NC camp led by Oracle and Sun Microsystems have spent a good portion of this week trying to convince attendees that, yes, NCs are the future of corporate computing, while Microsoft and Intel have argued that PCs are still relevant and still the most important development since the vacuum tube.

Representatives from three NC backers, including Oracle, IBM, Sun, and a lone PC proponent from Microsoft convened here yesterday to try to shed light on these issues. But the meeting just muddied the waters even more by raising new, perhaps unanswerable, questions.

The only thing everyone agrees on is that lowering desktop system administration costs is of prime importance to corporate IS departments. The question is what the best route is: the NC or the Microsoft-Intel NetPC initiative, a new hardware design and management scheme designed to reduce overall PC administration costs (see related story, NC brings PC cost of ownership to fore.)

All three NC backers sang a familiar tune: NCs can potentially slash maintenance costs for IS, slice precious days off of application development cycles, and most importantly, make management of client systems a dramatically simpler task.

But there are subtle differences in philosophy, even among the NC backers. Representatives from Sun and Oracle advocated using NCs and Java development for the bulk of new IS systems and as a low-cost retrofit for old client-server and host-based systems.

"There are strategic advantages driving this, not just dollars and cents," said Bud Tribble, vice president and chief architect of Java systems at Sun. "NCs are not underpowered devices. They let IS take the best of the [centralized and distributed] computing paradigms."

"We need to move complexity from the desktop to servers," said Beatriz Infante, senior vice president of the Internet and Media Products group at Oracle.

But Phil Hester of IBM--a company that has a foot in both NC and NetPC camps--painted a coexistence picture where data entry and clerical workers use NCs and technical and power users hang onto their ever-more powerful PCs. "The NC and Java make up a lightweight solution built to deal with the networking issues that PCs are not," he said. "But NCs are not good for desktop publishing or more demanding applications. If users need a PC, then an NC is not the answer."

Not surprisingly, Rich Tong, vice president of Microsoft's Desktop and Business Systems division, isn't an NC lover. But he didn't condemn the concept. Instead, he left the door open for a quick embrace of the NC by Microsoft in the future--just in case IS really does love it.

"Administration costs are a big driver [of this debate]. It's not a question of Windows vs. Java," he said. "It's not an 'either/or' situation, but an 'and' situation. You can deploy systems where they make sense."

Left unspoken by panelists but made vocal by audience members were questions about what will have to happen to servers so that they can support all of the Java-component management that NCs will need, how software licensing issues will work, and how much network bandwidth will really be needed.

The unspoken costs involved in the NC scheme are for server component management, so that NCs, which rely on servers for their lifeline, can constantly be fed new components.

One audience member said his biggest problem with the NC architecture is software licensing. How, he asked, could he license Microsoft Office for example, on a server for 100 users? The NC scheme, he said, would likely necessitate a revamping of vendors' software licensing policies.

Another unsettled debate involved bandwidth. All of those Java or ActiveX components passing over the network could lead to bottlenecks, slowing down everyone's system, said an audience member.

Sun's Tribble moved quickly to shoot down this point. "If you think NCs increase network traffic, you've missed the point. You only have to download applets from the server when you need them, and Java executes locally."

Whether that scheme will work as advertised on networks of thousands of NCs remains to be seen. That may lead many IS chiefs, who are notoriously conservative about radical change, to stick with their tried-and-true PC networks, at least for now.

So, the 200,000 Comdex attendees will go home without any real conclusion of the NC/PC debate, but at least this Comdex can be remembered as the first in many years where fundamental questions about the future of computing were asked.