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Technology / AI and automation

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE MAINFRAME

From Multimedia Futures, a sister publication.

What’s all this fuss? Whoever said we needed a different PC anyway? Chris Rose argues for the current technology.

The idea of the Network Computer would have been very familiar to anyone using a computer in the 1960s. After all, skinny network computers don’t come much skinnier than the IBM dumb terminal attached to the mainframe. So 20 years after the users began rebelling against the centralized control of the machine-room and began sneaking PCs in through the back door, is it really time for a counter revolution? No. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent applications for inexpensive, vertical market Java devices; its just to say that NCs won’t replace the PC as the standard workhorse or hobby-horse either in the office or at home. At his key-note address at the JavaOne Java developers conference, Sun CEO Scott McNealy produced a typically rambunctious attack on Windows and the PC, enumerating 10 comedy reasons why people would still want to buy that hairball mess known as a PC with Windows. McNealy, together with Oracle’s Larry Ellison is the high priest of the Network Computer religion. Yet, at a subsequent press-briefing his tone was much subdued: of course there would be a need for PCs and Workstations in an organization, he said. Neither was he terribly happy about the way that the press had leapt upon the ‘$500 computer’ concept. The purchase price isn’t really the issue, he opined. Rather it is the cost of maintenance. Ellison’s vision is of the zero maintenance client. Given that the Gartner group reckons that it costs $8,000 a year to maintain a corporate PC, wh at kind of corporation could ignore that? Probably most of them. Just to put this into context for a moment, let’s remember that many corporate IT managers are the kind of people who felt nervous about upgrading their users from Windows 3.1 to Windows 3.11. And apart from the inherent conservatism of the corporate market, there are a few other things to consider, starting with home users. The home market now dominates PC sales, particularly at the high-end where multimedia games-players are swallowing CPU capacity as fast as it can be provided. Immediately write this market off. For one thing, experience shows that home users like their machines future-proofed and expandable. To keep the price down, NCs are more likely to be expansion-proofed and expendable. But most importantly anyone attached to the Internet via a modem is not going to wait for their code to load – even assuming a new generation of cable-modems and super-fast domestic connections, users will stick with their applications on their hard-disks. They won’t want to pay their local telephone companies to store their games, spreadsheets or word-processed documents on their remote servers. As Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web points out: a world where diskless Java NCs become ubiquitous in the home is one where users will have a huge cache hidden in the basement. Perhaps Java NCs have a place as part of a set-top box in the home – but they will not replace the PC. Okay, so back to all those corporations that remain intrigued by the idea of the maintenance-free desktop client. There are the trade-off’s that they will have to make (quite apart from scrapping their existing application base). But the fact is that the issues that set users screaming to be free from the mainframe in the 70s still apply. First off there is the network. In today’s general office environment a break in the network for 2 minutes is an annoying inconvenience: users might not be able to print for a few seconds , or they might not be able to check a database or send email. In the brave new-Java NC world, they will suddenly find that a vital bit of their wordprocessor won’t load. So lots more investment to make the network fault tolerant. Lots more investme nt too, to make it faster. As all that Java byte code goes flying about, users won’t want to wait three seconds to load a bit of their application off the network. Your fileservers? you better beef them up as well; make them fully fault tolerant, fa ster, with bigger disks. Put them in a nice air-conditioned room, locked away (after all they are now completely mission critical). You’d better hire more technical staff too, preferably in white coats and 1950’s haircuts to administer the machines. You’ve bought a maintenance-free desktop, but you’ve simply pushed the expense into the network, into the server. And when the user says he or she wants to try out an experimental application, tell them that they can’t: after all you don’t want bit s of rogue Java on your mainframe… err, sorry, on your server. As Dennis Tsu, marketing director at Sun told Computer Reseller News about the company’s forthcoming Java servers: When you process Java applets in addition to serving them, you have a big CPU requirement… We’re looking forward to selling some big iron. The Java NC is likely to be as successful as the diskless workstation or the X-terminal as a general- purpose corporate desktops. That’s not to say that cheap, Java-powered bo xes don’t have a place in business. Indeed there are a plethora of exciting applications where lightweight Java clients could change the face of computing. Anywhere where one, maybe two well-defined programs are run: in a doctor’s surgery; airline reservation terminals; real-estate offices; set-top boxes. But the likelihood is that Java NCs won’t look like computers at all, they will look like phones, with built in Web browsers (Northern Telecom already has prototypes) or a smart photocopier/p rinter (Xerox’s plan). Any device that can be attached to the network could benefit from having some added Java intelligence. On the desktop, however, the best Java-enabled computer is likely to remain the PC or Mac, for a long time to come.

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CBR Staff Writer

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