"The network is the computer," was the rallying cry for the non-PC forces this year.
Their vision: Most users need only an inexpensive device to hook up to the Internet. Their name for it: the network computer. Vindicating Larry Ellison, the NC instead of being ridiculed became a credible product, one that won the endorsement from Fortune 1000 companies.
But more important, this constant drumbeat for an inexpensive machine seemed to have woken up the Microsoft-Intel camp. The two companies, which had long-turned a deaf ear to user complaints that PCs were expensive to maintain (as much as $12,000 per user, by some estimates), were forced to announce their own version for a cheaper, easy-to-maintain device. They called it the NetPC.
Once hostile to the very idea of NC, Microsoft seems to be toning down the rhetoric. Speaking at Comdex, Rich Tong, a Microsoft vice president, 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."
Still, the long-term implications of both the NC and NetPC are still unresolved. For starters, does cutting costs on the client side mean adding costs on the server side? 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.
Whatever the outcome, the NC has to be credited for opening up the first debate in many years where fundamental questions about the future of computing are being asked.