Network Computer in The Future

The recent development of the World Wide Web (WWW), telecommunications, and associated computer technologies have paved the way for a new concept in computing and communication. Envisioned by Larry Ellison (CEO Oracle), Network Computer (NC) has gain strong support and momentum in its short history of one and a half year. Even its rival, Microsoft/Intel group, had to come up with a similar plan, NetPC, as defense. Will Network Computer be the next revolution of computers? In this article, a broad range of Network Computer related topics, from design specifications to market impacts, are discussed.

Background and History of Network Computer  

Evolution of Computer and Network Technology  

The Internet , World Wide Web, and Intranet

The Internet has recently become one of the most exciting and explosive facets of popular culture. With the development of web-browsers like MOSAIC, its successor Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer, the World Wide Web (WWW) has undergone unprecedented growth. Since it's conception in 1994, the WWW consumer market has already grown to 35 million users (currently) and is estimated to grow to over 200 million users by the year 2000. This rampant growth has opened many new opportunities for software and hardware companies.

Intranets are internal company networks that are very similar to the WWW, differing only in that firewalls (security devices) restrict unauthorized (non-employee) access. With the introduction of the WWW, companies have discovered how Intranets can offer up to 1000% return on investment (ROI) in less than three month.

Communication Technology

Telecommunications technology continues to improve. Digital phone lines (ISDN), fiber optics, modem technology, and other communications means allows users to transfer and receive data more efficiently.

Companies like IBM, Motorola, SkyTel, and others are working on ways to improve wireless communications technologies. One recent development in wireless technology (wireless) involves the utilization of radio frequency (RF) waves to transfer data. Radio stations may someday offer Internet access with extremely high bandwidth capacity and fast transfer times.

Object-oriented Computing

Object-oriented Programming (OOP) is new methodology of software engineering. A complex piece of software is breakdown into components according to their functionality. Therefore, writing a software is like building a car. One will first build nuts and bolts, gears and bearings. They are put together to make the engine, transmission and wheels. Then, these parts are put together to make a car. In object-orient design, an application is an integration of objects, each providing specific function.

Client/Server Technology

Client/Server (C/S) technology refers to a distributed network of software and hardware components. Applications, such as MS Word, reside on the client computer, while data is stored on the server computer. Each time that a user wishes to alter or retrieve data, he/she must send a request to the server, which in turn returns the requested information to the client. This technology enables users in many different locations to have access to the same data, while freeing up local (user) resources.

Java, Applet and ActiveX

Sun Microsystems' development of a new software product named Java has also made a significant impact on the WWW. Java is commonly viewed as a new way to make web pages more dynamic - incorporating sound, animation, or even stock tickers into web page. However, it is becoming known as a new computing platform - the base upon which software developers can build applications.

Java is different from ordinary software in that Java applications, or applets, reside on centralized network servers. The network delivers the applet to your system upon user request. The applet runs inside a "container" such as a Web browser on the client system.This alleviates the user (client) from having to store applications on his/her computer, thus allowing cross-platform operability. Since the application resides on the server, and only the required components are temporarily transferred to the user when requested, client side software needs only be minimal.

The possible ramifications of this are unlimited. Applets could potentially replace most of client-resident software due to its flexibility and open-endedness. Users could download applications on an as-needed basis instead of having to purchase bulky, expensive software packages that most users never fully exploit anyway.

Microsoft has realized the importance of Java and has developed a similar product, ActiveX, Java has been accepted as the industry standard. Both Netscape and Microsoft have incorporated Java capabilities into their web-browsers, and many companies have begun to develop Internet applications based upon the Java platform.

According to a recent InfoWorld survey, one out of every three Web sites is Java-enabled with more than 20 million people using Java-enabled browsers.

Emergence of Network Computer

Oracle, the world's second leading software producer, has a vision for providing the world with an alternative to expensive, hard to maintain PC's. On September 4th, 1995, Larry Ellison (CEO Oracle) introduced the concept of the Network Computer (NC). The NC is a "new generation of affordable, easy-to-use information devices...optimized for electronic communications, information access, entertainment, and a host of applications."

The idea of NCs in its current incarnation emerged in late December 1995. The first client hardware systems were displayed in prototype form at the First JavaOne Conference in San Francisco by Mitsubishi and HDS Network Systems. Sun Microsystems concurrently announced the development of JavaOS, a new operating system for these new NC clients.

Other vendors had also been working on prototypes, and many felt there was a need for coherency in the infant market. Without a standard, the NC world could schism into a number of disparate proprietary mechanisms in which vendors scrambled to assemble their following before the gel set. With the future in mind, representatives from Apple Computer, IBM, Netscape, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems came together to create NCRef1. The preliminary specification was released on May 20, 1996..

Called "NC Reference Profile 1", the set of guidelines is designed to make multimedia Internet computing as ubiquitous as telephone and television services. It promotes competition in a new class of communications and commerce devices for use in homes, schools, businesses and institutions and will ensure compatibility of models from different manufacturers.

NC Reference Profile 1 provides a common set of standard features and functions across a broad range of scalable NCs. It is architecturally neutral and intended to facilitate the growth of the network computing industry while protecting investments made by customers, content providers, system providers, service providers and application providers through industry-wide compatibility. The most important decision -- to make NCRef1 platform-independent -- was a given since the lead vendors needed to maintain their marketshare. Nonetheless, this selfish start resulted in many different platforms functioning with the same software. With the help of platform-independent Java, of course.

The NC Reference Profile 1 sets guidelines for standard functionality, but it does not impose limitations. Vendors interested in adding more functionality to their NC implementations may do so because the Reference Profile does not limit designs to a specific set of features.

NCs complying with the planned NC Reference Profiles may take many forms -- from desktops to laptops to video phones, pagers and even conventional PCs. All these devices may be linked to the Internet or Intranet and run basic applications such as Web browsers, e-mail applications, word processors, spreadsheets and presentation packages. In addition, NCs may function as multimedia machines by supporting video e-mail, 16-bit CD-quality sound and digital videos.

Network Computer Inc.'s (NCI) hardware partners announced on Nov. 5, 1996 the pricing and availability of network computers, based upon NCI's reference design. NCI, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle Corp., is working with the industry's leading hardware, consumer electronics and software companies to deliver complete network computing solutions to corporations, ISPs and systems integrators. NCI's partners demonstrated a range of existing and future NC(TM) devices and NC software applications at Oracle OpenWorld.

NCI's partners have committed to produce the network computer for both the consumer and corporate market, in a number of different 'form factors.' RCA, America's leading seller of color televisions, intends to manufacture a US$300 set-top box network computer for the consumer market. Funai, the premier manufacturer of VCRs worldwide will manufacture the JANESA, a network computer for both the corporate and consumer markets. Acorn Computer Group plc, Akai Digital, IDEA, Proton Industrial Electronic Co. Ltd, and Uniden also announced pricing and production details of their network computers all based on NCI's reference design.NCI has been seeding the market with 'proof of concept' trials with over two dozen corporations and ISPs worldwide. Working with the hardware companies, NCI will supply the database, networking software, applications, consulting and support services to implement the network computer into the corporate and consumer market.

"Demand for the network computer has been phenomenal," said Jerry Baker, President of NCI. "We are delighted to work with the finest hardware and consumer electronic manufacturers in the industry to deliver the promise of simple and affordable computing to our customers."  

Network Computer and its Features

Figure 9. Computer

In simple terms, the NC is a stripped-down version of a PC or PDA (personal digital assistant) which does not have a large local disk to store software and data files. Instead, the vast majority of the software and data will reside on the server (host) computer, and will only be retrieved as needed, via Java (or similar) software.


No-specific hardware specification is defined for network computer. Vendors can implement using any kind of microprocessor (memory system, video/graphics system, etc.) they prefer. A good many of NC client systems use uncommon CPUs, such as the ARM, StrongARM, ShBoom, and picoJava core chips. Any number of devices can be branded as a "Network Computer" if each implements the minimal qualities of the standard. Even a typical desktop computer can be considered a NC client station if it is used as a NC.

Operating Systems

In determining which operating system (OS) will become the NC industry standard, Java seems to be the leader. JavaOS, the customized Java-interpreting operating system from Sun seems to be the hottest contender. Other companies are also vying to sell the industry on their operating systems. Apple's Pippin technology incorporates a cut-down version of the MAC OS, while Microsoft has allegedly been working on developing it's previously aborted Windows for Pen Computing system to use as a NC OS.

Standard Software Component

To allow the flexibility and usability of the NC, network computer would operate on industry standards and protocols, such as TCP/IP, FTP, SNMP, HTML, HTTP, Java, SMTP, IMAP4, POP3, JPEG, GIF, WAV, and AU. This is an attempt to alleviate the problems caused by proprietary (closed) systems which has added to the complexity of PCs.

Computing Model

Network computer supports a variety of client/server models, ranging from the ultra-thin client to the fat client. The thin client is typified by a desktop system which stores applications and data on a network server, but performs all or most of the application processing within itself. Thin-client the preferred model for network computer.

The ultra-thin client does not store any applications or data locally, and all actual application processing is performed on a network server. The only local processing is that of graphical display. All the data that transpires between the client and the server consists of graphical updates to the screen. This is close to X-terminal. The fat client stores most of its data locally, as well as processes applications locally.

User Interface

Imposing a standard user interface, such as Navigator or Internet Explorer, for the front-end of all applications, The same user-interface (web-browser) would operate all programs, thus eliminating the learning curves of many applications.

Security & Access

At the heart of the network computer is an innovative SmartCard that provides users with easy and secure access to the network. Each user has a unique SmartCard -- similar to a bank ATM card -- that can be inserted into any NC. With a SmartCard anyone can access their personal data and electronic mail from anywhere in the world. One benefit of such as card-system is that users will be able to use other people's machines without having to reconfigure the computer each time. Banks, offices, hotels, and other businesses will most likely have network computers available to their customers, and all they will have to do is insert their SmartCard into the machine to have network access.

Low cost

The promise of the NC lies in its low cost, ease-of-use, flexibility, and reduced maintenance costs. The first generation of NCs are expected to costs approximately $500, with lower prices for NCs which substitute a monitor with a TV.


Technology and Standards of Network Computer

Network Computer standards

There are already several standards and reference platforms for NCs. Vendors and industry groups are choosing sides to lobby their product as the standard. A NC standard is not necessarily the same as a NC reference platform. Usually a standard is less specific, less detailed, and therefore allows more flexibility in the actual implementation, whereas the reference platform is an exact hardware design that a product should follow.

Here are four NC standards and reference platforms as specified by a certain vendor or group of vendors, in no particular order:

  • The Network Computer Reference Profile (NCRef) by Oracle.

  • The NetPC standard from Microsoft.

  • WeBRef by Motorola and HDS Network Systems.

  • National Semiconductor's Odin Reference Platform.

The NCRef and NetPC have by far the largest number of supporters. Not listed here are reference platforms and standards for products which cross into the home/entertainment market; this includes products like the WebTV and the Apple Pippin. In addition, a number of other vendors have made proprietary products which do not adhere to any of these standards (such as, Nokia MediaMaster, WebBook).


The NCRef is a system standard and does not make limitations on implementation. Most of its requirements are software- and concept-oriented, and it is specifically hardware-architecture neutral. It describes support for common Internet protocols such as TCP, UDP, NFS, FTP, Telnet, SNMP, SMTP, IMAP4, POP3, BOOTP, and DHCP, as well as more Web-related standards such as HTML, HTTP, and Java. Finally, for security's sake, there are optional standards for ISO 7816 SmartCards and the Europay/Mastercard/Visa specifications.

Hardware Architecture

While maintaining hardware-platform independence, there was still a need to provide specifics on the minimum and NC client station should provide. So these hardware resources are a guide, not a hard limit to the maximum capabilities of these systems.

The basic screen is 640 by 480 pixels and VGA-compliant; or at least its equivalent resolution and quality. A pointing device such as a mouse, trackpad, trackball, etc., would be required in the graphical environment. And you need a text-input device, such as a traditional keyboard, although no specific keyboard standard is indicated. So you could use a stylus to write directly onto the screen, PDA style, with optical character recognition to provide the translation into digitext. An audio output device is also indicated, so the NC revolution can be heard as well as seen, unlike with older X terminals. There is a clear message that there is no requirement for persistent local storage. This means local files on local filesystems on internal hard drives. With just these basic hardware tenets, any desktop PC in the world could be declared a NC client. So we'll have to follow with the software requirements for the profile, which help further distinguish NC clients.

Operating System

The Operating System In the NCRef1, the NC client OS is not specified. This was a smart move. Every time vendors have attempted to unify the wide range of operating systems, they have either failed or had limited success. Vendors, by their own nature, have too much at stake in their operating systems, too much inertia to overcome, just to move over to a new standard. This type of inertia is one of the reasons why the Microsoft environment has been such a success and why no-one ever discovered the Grand Unifying Principle of Unix. Of course, splintering is not completely a bad thing. Differentiation of and within operating systems permits the exploration of new structures and architectures; it also adds the element of competition, so you can count on vendors to give you their best. But it can also result in a monopolistic control of the operating system and its direction once a vendor has reached the top.

There are a few rare occasions when the industry as a whole moves away from the established towards a new design. Java is the OS that currently occupies that spotlight. Java essentially came about because the World Wide Web and its bandwidth requirements needed a compact, simple language capable of creating relatively complex applications. And Java fit the bill. Latched onto the Web, Java has rocketed towards global acceptance as a rider on the Web. Because Java works on many major platforms, provides the complex programming environment for serious business applications, and yet still allows the development of platform neutral software, it was chosen unanimously to be the working environment for applications in the NCRef1. This means that new applications will be available across the numerous NC client stations that are currently in production, regardless of CPU or hardware design.

NC clients will still have their own native operating systems, but will also host a Java Virtual Machine for network applications. In fact, most vendors expect that only a few native applications will actually exist for NC clients and that those that do will be produced by the maker of the native OS. Vendors are relying on the growing pool of third-party Java applications developers and companies to generate the mass of tools, groupware, and custom applications that will be (and are) used in the workplace.


Network Protocols NCRef1 is primarily designed around the Internet and its protocols. In fact TCP/IP is the base protocol of all NCs to date, although select vendors may support others.

At the network level is the Internet Protocol in its current incarnation, IPv4. IPv6, the next generation, may be added to the specification as it evolves, but is currently beyond the frame of NCRef1. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol), the mainstay transport protocols of IP, will be used in the NCnet as well.

Application support protocols include the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) for network management; and Bootp and the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) for automatic client station network configuration.

Several electronic mail protocols will be supported. The Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) which provides the delivery mechanism for most of the e-mail delivery on the Internet will continue its place in the NCnet. Client station e-mail access protocols such as the Post Office Protocol (POP) version 3 and the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) version 4 will allow users to access their server-based e-mail from any NCRef1-based client station. Additionally, although not explicitly indicated in NCRef1, e-mail document formats such as the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) will be supported.

The current HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) will be supported, as will the HyperText Markup Language (HTML). NCRef1 is not specific about which version of HTML it identifies, but we estimate that it covers at least version 2 (which includes Forms-based processing) and probably extensions from version 3.2 (such as Tables).

Other document formats needed to support the Web environment include the JPEG and GIF image formats, and the WAV and AU audio file formats.

On the application side, the most common Internet connectivity and file-access protocols will be included. This includes Telnet for remote text-based network connectivity to server systems and FTP and NFS for remote file access.


The NCRef1 addresses the security aspect of NC clients in a vague manner. According to the Reference, NCs apparently are to rely upon their "No local storage" rule and the security of their server platforms for data and information security. And since the client stations alone are useless without user access to the server, there really isn't anything to secure on the client side except the user. This places even more importance on user-level access and authentication which is partially addressed by NCRef1.

There is an optional security standard for ISO 7816 SmartCards and the Europay/Mastercard/Visa (EMV) Chip Card specifications. These provide an identification mechanism based on recently developed SmartCard technology. Although new in the US, it has been in test in European and Australian markets for a few years.

Each card has a chip and an Integrated Circuit (IC) that contains security and identification information per user. These standards offer a common access terminal and IC logic specification for vendors to implement. Additionally, they may also be used in debit card applications containing a dollar amount on the chip. Acting as an electronic wallet, it records each sale or transaction on the chip which can be read by a terminal for later record-keeping.

Many important issues still lie unanswered by the NCRef1.

  • Inter-vendor product compatibility and user identification and access

Without a common identification scheme, you are left with the login process at the server level; the SmartCard system only addresses security, not interoperability across vendor products. This means that you may not be able to use an Acorn NC in a NCnet of JavaStation and Netra J servers.

  • User profile and information storage.

There is no common protocol for identifying a user's personal resources, account profile, etc. The inclusion of a protocol such as the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) would solve this issue. Novera is a one new company which has already tackled this problem and arrived with EPIC, their Enterprise Platform for Internet Computing infrastructure software package.

  • Caches.

A lot of network activity can be reduced by caching data on local hard disk storage (just as long as it's not used as local data storage). We know that most if not all Web browsers have a hard drive-based caching feature which speeds up access to common pages greatly. It is quite likely that this will be needed on the client station as well and not just for HTML pages.

  • Web plug-ins

Although the basic formats are supported, PC-based Web browsers allow the ability to add new functions through a plug-in architecture. Application Levels are currently undefined and based completely on vendor preference. Some coherence (and dare we say, adherence to a single standard) is necessary in this area, either to the Java API family or to another.

  • Network interface

There is an implicit understanding that NCRef1 relies on Ethernet technology. This should be broadened to include higher speed and other technologies.

  • Browser standards

The Web browser and HTML standards definition should be expanded or at least clarified. Currently many NC client vendors are looking to implement the Netscape browser while NetPC vendors are taking to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. A new front on the ongoing Browser Wars has opened.

  • Confusion

Finally, the NCRef1 puts no limitations on what constitutes a NC. A PC with local storage and everything else that the standard includes could be construed as a NC. The statement that "persistent local storage [is] not required" does not exclude the possibility of having local filesystems. This could mean that any number of the hundred million PC desktops out in the market can call itself and NC if it meets the required guidelines and protocols. Although those in the know can tell the difference, neophytes and novices will only smack into another wall of confusion.


The NetPC is more of a reference platform with descriptions for requirements in CPU (min. 100MHz Intel Pentium), memory, video resolution, internal peripheral buses, and so on. In fact, you probably have a NetPC on your desktop now -- that Microsoft Windows desktop PC, no surprise. NetPC seems to rivals mostly a me-too standard from Microsoft to occlude the NC waters. Software-wise, the NetPC is based on Microsoft-only standards for operating systems and device drivers.

When the idea of Network Computing was first put forth in late 1995 and early 1996, Microsoft strongly opposed it. Their spokesmen, all the way up to Bill Gates, ridiculed the notion of a "dumb terminal" that would rob PC customers of their precious autonomy and turn away from the insatiable demand for ever more computing power. It is hardly surprising that Microsoft would fight a proposal that doesn't include Microsoft's operating system, especially since proponents of the NC from Larry Ellison to Scott McNealy made plain their hope that the NC revolution would at least blunt, and perhaps even turn back, the seemingly relentless march of Microsoft software on Intel hardware across the desktops and server rooms of the world.

What is surprising is how swiftly and radically Microsoft changed strategies. The network computing concept touched a nerve in corporate America that wasn't going to be soothed by mere contempt. Microsoft, it appears, went back to the drawing boards and rethought the whole question of network computing and how it could affect Microsoft's business model.

On October 28th, 1996, Microsoft and Intel, the leaders of the desktop computer industry, announced the joint NetPC initiative. It came with rallying cries and "count-me-ins" from such vendors as Compaq, Dell, Digital, Gateway, and HP, as well as other members of the PC industry.

As one would expect, the NetPC standard builds on existing, successful, hardware and system architecture while improving management and componentization of the overall unit. The specification itself, and statements from its supporters, make clear the new strategy. Microsoft and Intel identified a few of the most powerful issues at the core of the appeal of network computing. Corporate managers have expressed growing dissatisfaction with the cost and tedium involved in maintaining, upgrading, and managing Windows-based PCs, especially as installations grow into the thousands and tens of thousands. Microsoft and Intel have had slow-moving initiatives to address these complaints.

It appears that Microsoft and Intel are taking the tack of narrowing the debate to the key issue of maintenance and management of the PC installed base. If they can reduce it all to an argument about cost of ownership, and show an immediate solution (no matter how unimplemented), and brush aside all the other complex issues raised by the network computer concept -- they have a chance to stop the NC revolution in its tracks.

The NetPC reference profile is a specification for a low-maintenance PC system that was designed with the network in mind. At the very basic level, it is a Windows-based environment that runs on an Intel/PC-based architecture. As we look closer at the design, you will notice that it is a new step for the PC market. You will also notice that it is very much not a minimally configured, low-powered system; the NetPC is no dumbed-down 386, and customer savings aren't coming from initial cost.

Hardware specifications

The NetPC is a hardware specification first, and practically defines the desktop platform found in many corporations today. The hardware section of the standard also leaves room for the addition of interesting new technologies into the PC form factor. Although the rumor is that the essential savings in the NetPC will be a lowered initial price as well as savings in administration, Paul Maritz, Group VP at Microsoft, says "[not to] anticipate [that the] acquisition price will be significantly less than [the] traditional PC."

Basic hardware components of the NetPC are

  • CPU: Pentium 100MHz or equivalent;

  • Memory: 16MB RAM minimum;

  • Disk: Internal hard disk as cache;

  • Video: 640x480 pixels at 8 bits/pixel (VGA);

  • Audio device (type unspecified);

  • Plug-and-play BIOS support;

  • No expansion slots;

  • Network interface (Ethernet, Token Ring, V.34 modem, ISDN, ATM, T-1);

  • Keyboard, pointing device/mouse; and

  • Locked/sealed case.

Optional hardware additions include

  • IDE floppy drive,

  • CD-ROM,

  • PC (PCMCIA) card slots,

  • Universal Serial Bus (USB), and

  • 1394 high-speed peripheral bus.

Of these specifications, the components that command the most attention are the new device and peripheral buses, USB and 1394. These technologies are part of Microsoft's earlier PC 97 initiative to create a new universal hardware platform for desktop PCs. PC 97 has been in the design stages for at least 18 months; it coincided with Microsoft's plan for Windows 97 and a revision of the aging PC architecture.

In one direction, the PC 97 design led to the development of Microsoft's Simply Interactive PC (SIPC). This is a target device for the consumer electronics/entertainment market. In concept, it is a predecessor to the NetPC device. The NetPC profile could emerge so rapidly because it borrowed from the PC 97/SIPC design. Still, the core designs of the SIPC and NetPC differ wildly when it comes to the operating system and device drivers.

The Universal Serial Bus (USB) provides a generic desktop bus for components ranging from a simple mouse to complex digital video camera systems. The concept for the USB is to simplify the number of connectors and cables in and out of the PC box. If this sounds familiar to you, think back to the older Macintosh desktop bus. The concept is the same, but the implementation is different. The USB allows you to hook a mouse to a keyboard, a keyboard to a monitor, speakers to the monitor, the monitor to the PC, and so on. Essentially, redundant cables and connectors are reduced, and not all of the cables have to be directly plugged into the PC system unit.

The IEEE 1394 bus (also known as FireWire) is a next-generation serial bus for external devices; it adds increased speed and more data paths. It was designed to suit a large variety of peripheral devices such as keyboards, mice, microphones, digital video cameras, and even common household electronics (of the future), such as stereos and VCRs. Systems based on the USB and 1394 architectures will be appearing on the market this year from vendors such as Sony PC, HP, Gateway, and Dell. Because of the new architecture, however, they will take time to reach a wide audience and even longer to be incorporated into a wide range of non-PC components.

Operating System

The NetPC is one step ahead of NCRef1 in that it also defines a specific operating system environment. Based on Windows 95 (and probably Windows 97), the operating system environment will be compatible with current Windows software and will not require any rewrites, recompiles, etc. It is unknown whether the Windows NT environment will also be available for the NetPC design. Technically, this shouldn't be a problem, since the hardware design is not too far from current PC designs. However, the NetPC calls for some features that are still missing from NT 4.0, such as the plug-and-play support. The NetPC design will also not support the lightweight Microsoft Windows CE (Pegasus) environment for portable devices because of core differences in OS architecture.


From the software viewpoint, the NetPC will contain

  • A Microsoft Windows operating system,

  • Windows 95- and NT-standard compatible device drivers,

  • Machine-encoded unique identification numbers, and

  • Built-in network-management agent software and integration with Web Based Enterprise Management.

  • Automatic pre-boot device driver configuration

  • Automatic system/software scanning for policy compliance

  • Diagnostic tools for monitoring and predicting component failure

  • System level trouble-ticketing software

  • Remote wake utility

The unique identification of PCs is an interesting addition. This means that you may be able to track each NetPCs through its identification number to allow a greater degree of access control. Of course, this also makes it possible for vendors to license software packages physically to specific machines; duplicating it on your laptop might not be an option, and transferring it to a different system might not be so simple. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft and other software vendors exploit this opportunity.

Many of the automated elements that have been added are to support the simplification of the complex Windows environment to improve and ease management of each unit while attempting to maintain the status quo as a "semi-fat" client.

One assumes that other major Microsoft initiatives such as the Active Desktop or Active Themes (the unified Explorer environment) may also slide into the NetPC environment in due time; currently it has been delayed in the beta stage of Win97.

File systems

The filesystem for the NetPC has yet to be specified. One possibility for a future version of the spec is FAT-32, a filesystem Microsoft is developing as a replacement in future Windows system for the age-old DOS FAT (FAT-16) filesystem (FAT stands for File Allocation Table, the method used for managing file sectors). This new filesystem provides significant improvements in storage capacity, file names, performance, file information, etc. -- basically, filesystem technologies developed over the last 20 years in other operating systems. It is not, however, the same as the NT's NTFS file system, which is a step beyond even FAT-32 in some respects.

The local storage specified for the NetPC is to be used as a cache drive and probably the system disk. User data storage might be specifically moved to the network file server system.


WebRef is a new reference platform created by Motorola with the help of HDS Network Systems. It is based on the new Motorola MPC800 PowerPC series. For an operating system, it currently runs HDS' netOS NC/X-terminal operating system. Motorola and HDS have not outlined further information other than it will be a hardware reference platform based on their PowerPC microprocessors.

National Semiconductor was eager to join the fray with a promise of an incredible sub-$200 NC with Project Odin. It has created a reference platform specification of its own surrounding its embedded Intel 80486-based CPUs, the NS486SXF. In addition to the core 486, it also has a DRAM controller, a Direct Memory Access (DMA) controller, a PC card (PCMCIA) controller, an ISA bus interface, an infrared I/O port, a parallel port, and serial ports built directly into the same chip architecture. Consolidating all these components into one piece of silicon gives you an idea from where much of the cost savings can come.

NC vs NetPc

The obvious question is: How does the NC (client) compare to the NetPC? Bear in mind that both standards are still in version 1. Oracle's pioneering Network Computer Inc. swears that NCRef1 is still in development, although products which adhere to it are already available on the market. Products based on the NetPC 1.0 specification are scheduled to appear by mid-1997.  




Network Interface

Various (Serial, Ethernet, ATM)

Various (Serial, Ethernet, ATM)


Since Jun 1996

mid-year 1997

Acknowledged Vendors

Approx. 20

Approx. 7



Intel x86 family, Pentium 100MHz


Wide range, typical 8MB

16 MB RAM min.

Operating System




No (not required)


Local File System

Not Applicable

Possibly DOS FAT

Network File System


CIFS, Windows Networking

Network Protocols

Standard TCP/IP protocols

Microsoft-derived TCP/IP protocols (SMB), some standard TCP/IP protocols

Printer Support


Windows Networking

Mobile Support



Development Tools

Native: Limited, NT: Wide range

Widely Available

Application Environment

Java, Virtual NT

Windows 95/97


Native: Limited, NT: Wide range

Widely Available

Management Environment


Microsoft/Intel software package based on DMI and WBEM


 Table 1. NCRef1 And NetPC

Based as it is on Windows, the dominant desktop OS, the NetPC architecture has a good jump on the NCRef1 design in some respects. For one thing, Windows is, by any measure, a more mature environment than Java. This means it has stood the test of time, but it should also be pointed out that Windows incorporates many elements which exist for the sake of backward compatibility; these plump up Windows and in the long run are dead weight, reducing flexibility.

The NCRef1 design works primarily in the Java environment, but many NC clients also have access to Windows applications through Virtual NT products. Note that the Virtual NT environment indicated is not officially a part of the more nebulous NCRef1. However, practically all vendors are including such a client/server-based system in their products. With the recent announcement from Insignia Solutions that their NTrigue client will soon be available as a Java applet/application, this may allow all NC clients access to legacy applications.

The software environment for the NetPC lies almost completely in the Windows application world. Although some development of Java products may result in NetPC applications, Microsoft is pushing for development in its ActiveX arena. This will result in more Windows-based applications with the new label of ActiveX components. Java application development is playing catch-up to the wide range of Windows packages, which does put Java-based network computing at an opening disadvantage.

The NCRef1 lacks features such as direct printer support. Already some vendors are looking to fill in this hole. X terminal vendors who have evolved into NC client vendors (with the first NC devices to market) already support network printing through the aging Unix print server (lpd) system. NetPC relies on the Windows network printer-sharing system to coordinate printing across the LAN.

But what about one of the most important features which may help to reduce the total cost of ownership -- the management of the software environment? So far, this is the most ambiguous element in the two specifications. Currently it appears that NCRef1 vendors will base most of their products on common SNMP-based (Simple Network Management Protocol) tools such as Sun Solstice Manager and IBM NetView. The NetPC management environment will revolve around the Desktop Management Interface specification, originally developed by the Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF). It is curious that Microsoft once almost completely ignored the DMTF's work, even after participating ever so actively in the endeavor. Microsoft had made statements that it may not include the DMTF's work in its future operating systems. Now it looks like they are back. Intel, also a member of DMTF, will certainly be happy to see this development.

Can NetPC compete?

Microsoft and Intel are powerful players; their rivals, also powerful, include Oracle, Sun, and IBM. It is far too early to see the direction the battle for the soul of network computing will take even this year, let alone in the long term. How adroitly each side plays its hand will determine a lot, as well as how the customers -- especially, in the short term, the corporate customers -- decide what's important.

Beyond the design and component issues, the philosophy of the vendors involved helps determine their motivation, their strategies, and their constraints. Microsoft is the leading vendor of desktop operating systems. From their origins as a low-end desktop environment vendor they have successfully transitioned into the corporate world of enterprise systems by adding products like NT to serve the Windows client systems. The network computing initiative is the first serious threat to Microsoft's march across the entire computing environment, and Microsoft is taking it very seriously.

Consider the motives of the corporate buyer, the intended beneficiary of these specs. Mainframes with terminals turned out not the be the universal computing system, so local computing devices swept in -- this includes the PC, of course, but it also includes the Macintosh and even the Unix workstation. Most corporations include an awful mix of systems, and all wish they could reduce everything to one universal computing device.

With Wintel PCs so widespread, Microsoft has had a powerful argument for grinding down all client/desktop rivals, from Macintoshes and workstations to dumb terminals. Nothing could stand in its way. Though the systems are a pain to manage in their own right, at least an all-PC corporation has only one environment for the thousands of custom applications that the IS department grinds out.

The NC proposal has challenged that apparently inevitable vision at its deepest levels. Understand that the network computing revolution isn't just based on lower costs up front, and easier maintenance because the box is locked shut. Because of Java, corporate buyers for the first time find the pressure of running custom applications on a variety of hardware radically reduced. Write-once run-anywhere has its strongest appeal in corporate IS circles. If it really works, IS no longer has to buy expensive and quirky PCs for every single desktop, regardless of use. Instead, IS can put the most suitable hardware and software on each desk -- PC bigots can keep their PCs, Macintosh bigots can keep their Macs, and the silent majority who don't know and don't care what's on their desk can get an NC. Custom software will run the same on all of them.

Picture a shop with 100 desktops. Because five of those desktops are occupied by PC power users, the only sensible thing to buy was PCs for everybody. Last year, that was the only sensible thing to buy. This year, you could put NCs on 95 desks and leave PCs on the desks of the five PC power users and probably save a bundle while you are it.

Network computing is the first concept to promise to reduce the reliance of the hardware and operating system sitting on client desks, to give corporate IS more choices, and to stop in its tracks the powerful drive towards simplicity-through-monolithic-systems.

Any Microsoft/Intel employee who doesn't find that prospect disturbing isn't paying attention. The NetPC proposal first makes sure Wintel PCs are part of the mix in any network computing planning session. Longer term, NetPC aims to put on the front burner initiatives designed to reduce cost of managing a large-scale PC environment.

Keys to success for both sides: Define the debate

The success of Microsoft and Intel in this initiative will hinge on two elements: First, how well they succeed in making the "cost of managing desktops" the key, or better yet only, issue in the minds of corporate customers, while minimizing all other issues (especially write-once run-anywhere); second, how well they deliver on the PC management software.

On the other hand, the success of the NC rivals to Microsoft and Intel will depend on how well and how quickly they execute on producing a wide range of useful non-Microsoft/Intel NC systems, and (just as important) how good a job they do of keeping the public convinced of the importance of the rich mix of issues, especially platform independence for corporate custom software. They will have to emphasize loudly that cost-of-ownership is more than just managing software upgrades; that other factors are equally important contributors: write-once run-anywhere application development, the ability to suit the system to the user's needs, the benefits of location-independent access, and the better management of data storage and file systems that comes from fat-reduced clients

Products and Manufacturers of Network Computer

Hardware Products

You can also classify NCs according to their purpose or manufacture. Here are some designations and categories for NCs and related devices:

The Desktop Client Station.

These are devices which exist only in a networked computing environment with a core focus on Java applications, such as those following the NCRef standard (Oracle NC, JavaStation).

Minimal or Sealed-Unit PCs.

These are devices to be created according to the NetPC and Odin standards, as well as others made independently, such as the AcerBasic.

Hand-Held Devices.

These look like PDAs, but actually rely on a wireless or wired network environment, such as the WebBook and the Acorn PDA. (But not the Newton, until Apple completes its Cyberdog Java implementation into the Newton OS.)

Internet Access Devices (IADs) and Set-Top Boxes (STBs).

These boxes connect to television systems and provide access to the Internet through built-in Web browsers. They may or may not have Java support.

Java-based X Terminals.

X terminals whose local operating systems have been improved to include a Java Virtual machine, such as those from HDS, NCD, Boundless Technologies, and IBM.

Internet appliances

An array of other Internet appliances, such as network-televisions are also in development. These next-generation NC will be developed by Scopus, IntelliMatch, Com.Sortium, The Consumer's Choice Network, and NetChannel. Another side of the network computer- television market is being developed by companies such as WebTV. WebTV, in conjunction with consumer electronics powerhouses such as Sony and Philips, will manufacture web-ready set-top boxes for Internet/TV use. WebTV has also forged alliances with other companies including: Concentric Network Corp., Excite Inc., Headspace Inc., Integrated Device Technology Inc., Progressive Networks Inc., and Surfwatch Software Inc.

Intelligent Telephones.

These devices provide executive telephones combined with network access, such as the Acorn ExecuPhone.

The following is a table organizing some of the common products according to the categories.

NCs by Category

Desktop Client

Sun JavaStation, Acorn/Oracle NC, IDEA Internet Client, Wyse Winterm

Minimal PC

AcerBasic, Unisys Aquanta, Monorail PC


WebBook, Mitsubishi MonAmi

Computer Phones

Acorn ExecuPhone

IADs and STBs

Apple Pippin, WebTV, Zenith NetVision, Nokia MediaMaster

Java-based X Terminals

Boundless NC, NCD Explora, IBM Netstation, HDS @workstation


Tabel 2. NCs by Category

Many of the systems in the above table are not only breaking new ground, their designers seem intent on making sure they look like they are breaking new ground. Prompted perhaps by the designer look of Silicon Graphics workstations, vendors are putting pizzazz into the once-beige pizza boxes.

Sun's JavaStation is a blue and purple, ellipsoidal cylinder seemingly slashed diagonally from top to bottom; the Acorn/Oracle desktop model is a black unit which looks like a plus sign extended vertically in 3D; IBM's NetStation is almost a thin little book standing on its end; the Akai Internet Connection looks like a home VCR; and, most amusingly, the WebBook looks like that favorite childhood toy, the Etch-a-Sketch.

It is nice to see vendors moving away from the basic slab or box look to more designer artwork, even if it isn't always for a practical reason. Just think: Your leading-edge corporate desktop client might soon look more trendy than your kid's Nintendo-64!

Software Products

Having a client station is great, but without software, you can't go anywhere. Software for NCs is appearing in various forms. Several companies, such as Sun and Oracle, have announced application suites along with their NCs. Most software for this new industry will be written in Java; however, with Virtual NT products, you can still maintain a good foothold in the older Windows application arena.

Current software offerings are limited, but leading vendors are working hard and fast to move their packages into a pure Java format so they can support this new environment and the Internet. The following table shows a listing of some of the software products targeted for the NC market (source: The Java Solutions Guide, Oct. 1996); these packages run in the NCnet either on the client or on the server side.


Categories of Software for NCs  

Software Type



Oracle's InterOffice Suite, Sun's HotJava Views, Corel Office for Java, Sanga Pages

Authoring Tools

Applix Anyware, FutureTense Texture, DimensionX Liquid Motion




Active Software ActiveWeb, D&B Software SmartStream, Information Builders' WebFOCUS, SAS Institute SAS/SHARE*Net

Object Development

IONA Technologies OrbixWeb, Sun JOE NEO

Application Development

Sun Java Workshop


CADIS Krakatoa, Corel Barista, InterLeaf Java Worldview


Bulletproof MarketPage & WallStreetWeb, HANI HOME Account, Stock Smart



Network Connectivity

OpenConnect OC://WebConnect

System & Network Administration

Sun Solstice Management APIs, Micromuse Netcool/OMNIbus, Wyatt River Software LicenseTrack


Tabel 3. Categories of Software for NCs

There is no uniform desktop GUI or window manager for all NCs. Sun's HotJava Views provides a rudimentary window manager as a pure Java application for the JavaStation. The Java-based X terminals already have their own native window managers and GUIs. The NetPCs use a Windows 95-like environment. TriTeal Corp., one of the leaders in the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) business, is looking to create a unified environment for NCs, just as they did for the world of Unix.

Some of these GUIs or windowing systems are dependent upon a specific server type. The HotJava Views environment currently only works with the Sun Netra j server, although Sun is working on porting the server component to other Solaris servers and operating systems as well. The NetPC is dependent upon an NT 4.0 server from which to boot and run applications. Some of the Java-based X terminals have local application software stored on ROM, local PC card hard drive, or by remote boot off a Unix server on the network.

A software product for the NCnet is more than just a Java applet or an application. It needs to be aware of how to communicate with a remote server and the environment of the server itself. You have to be able to start the application from the NC and work completely within the limitations of the NC. This means working with networked filesystems, small memory environments, and, at times, limited I/O devices.

A number of applications are now being based upon the JDBC (Java DataBase Connectivity) standard and access information directly from common enterprise or workgroup database systems such as Oracle, Informix, or Microsoft SQL Server. This in a way eliminates the need for a filesystem since most such databases are essentially very advanced file and information systems. Others work with files through the Network File System (NFS) standard, mounting their areas from remote servers. Interestingly, NFS servers have excelled over the past few years in speed and reliability. The NCnet might just lead to new growths of dedicated NFS server vendors, such as Network Appliance and Auspex. This would additionally move the responsibility of disk storage into the more capable hands of these highly reliable systems and away from local hard drives which suffer from numerous ailments.

One ongoing problem, that of Bloatware, is being addressed by the NCnet and Java. Software packages have grown larger and larger over time, until they have reached truly huge proportions -- hundreds of megabytes for some PC office suites, for example. The applications have a lot of capabilities built in, and while most of these features are rarely used, the exact mix used varies from customer to customer. Operating systems, meanwhile, take 50 to 100MB of disk real estate, and prefer 16 to 32MB of RAM to run well.

We can thank the Java gurus for giving us the chance to return to simpler times. NC operating systems can come in sizes as small as one megabyte and require a few hundred kilobytes of memory to run. Modular applications can mix and match functionality to provide all the appropriate capability of monolithic software. Software for NCs can still bloat, but one peculiar blessing of limited communications bandwidth may be the ongoing incentive to control code size.

 A List of Network Computer Related Product and Vendors  


Product(s) or Service(s)  


Various high-speed network access applications and products  


AcerBasic NC, NC II  

Acorn Computer Group  

Acorn NC (formerly NetSurfer), Office NC, Set-Top-Box NC, ExecPhone NC, NC TV  

Acadia Software  

Infuse 1.0 visual JavaScript editor

Active Software  

ActiveWeb is a software framework for enabling network-centric distributed computing that can integrate legacy and database systems with each other and extend them with Java to the Web  

Advanced Web Technologies  

Offers Java training, Java curriculum development, and Java software engineering and development support  

Advent Network Management

Provides Java- and Web-based network management software, such as Advent NetMonitor 1.0 (beta), Visual SNMP Applet Builder, Java SNMP Package 1.0.2, MIB Browser Applet 1.0.2, Source Code and Source Licencing for SNMP Package, and MIB Browser Applet 1.0.2  

Affinity Systems  

Supplier of PC-to-IBM Host connectivity solutions 

Agave Software Design  

JDBC NetServer links Java applets to standard databases  

Akai Digital  

Akai Internet Connection NC ($349) offers Internet connection through a television set.  


Apple, IBM, Netscape, Oracle and Sun Set First Guidelines for a New Generation of Low-Cost, Easy-To-Use Network Computers  


Anywhere Office Java-based desktop office suite  


SunRiver subsidiary gets AT&T order for network computers  

Bay Networks

High-end network routers, frame relay access devices, 100BaseT fast Ethernet interfaces, and cable modem products  

Boundless Technologies

XL and XLC X-ready network computers  

Check Point  

FireWall-1 3.0 lets administrators define rules or force authentication procedures for any connections that applets try to make to outside servers once they have landed in a network  

Cisco Systems

Applications that centralize management, automate routine tasks, and can be integrated into customers' existing network management environments, including the Cisco Internetwork Operating System

Citrix Systems

WinFrame software enables deployment of 32-bit Windows apps to non-Windows machines  


Commander DecisionWeb gives end users "thin client" DSS applications with dynamic ad hoc reporting on a par with full-function client/server applications  

Corel Corp  

Pocket Network Computer is a PDA type NC which will let users send and receive E-mail and faxes and browse the World Wide Web. starting under $500. It also includes a built-in modem for Web access via either wireless or dial-up connections  


powerBlend is a collection of reusable Java components  


ActiveWeb 7.0 is a Java class library for database-activating Web applications  

Dickens Data Systems

NCD Explora X-ready network computer  

Dimension X  

Liquid Reality is a set of Java class libraries to incorporate VRML into viewers, tools, and applications  

DTAI Inc.  

JustDBC is a suite of drivers, proxies, and servers that conform to the Java Database Connectivity standard (JDBC) and Microsoft's Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) standard  

Finjan Software

SurfinGate is a gateway server that examines the code of applets and administors digital IDs to identify them

Funai Electric Co. Ltd  

Janesa NC ($500)  


19S and 14S X-ready network computers


The @workStation line of X-ready network computers: @workBasic, @workPrima, @workSupra, and @workDuo
And the NetOS NC operating system


Envizex and Entria line of X-ready NCs  


IBM Network Station  


Internet Client Station (ICS) ($500) addresses the requirements for terminal enhancement and replacement, multi-tier client/server transaction processing, and office automation.  


WebSeQueL is ready-to-use, thin-client Java software for browser-based access to IBM's DB2 databases
The Fresco product family, a complete system for rapidly creating and deploying live Java database applications over networks; includes Fresco Designer Java RAD tool, the Fresco Information Server intranet application server, and Fresco Adapters, a set of adapters that connect to databases  

Insignia Solutions

NTrigue software allows X devices to display Windows applications  


Inventor of Java The Java NC Server  

JCC Corporation  

iBox allows connection to the Internet through your TV  


The Inferno networked operating system  


Castanet distributes and updates self-installing software across a network  


NetScope, a Java-based Web mapper, offers a global view of the Web instead of the traditional hierarchical view. The Viewer applet runs on any Java-enabled browser and no client-side software is needed.  


ActiveX scripting language  


XRAY for Java debugger, JavaOS on VRTX, and Spectra for Java development tools  

Mitsubishi Electric

The high-speed, motion-video distribution Media Gallery Intranet media servers: MG80, MG200, and MG400; and the StarWorks NT motion video distribution software  

Mortice Kern Systems  

Web Integrity 2.1 is an easy-to-use Web Object Management system designed for business users of the Intranet  

National Semiconductor

Odin Reference Platform  


NCD Explora, Explora Pro, HMX, HMX Pro, and HMX Pro24 X-ready network computers; Mon Ami and Amity software  

NCware Technology

Create Java business apps, such as HotUI, a collection of Java GUI bits; HotForm 1.0 for forms creation; HotChart 1.0 for graphing and display database data; and JDAP 1.0.0 (beta), to provide Java client interface access to universal directory servers  


See Oracle  


Creators of JavaScript.
The Communicator -- an email, groupware, and browser suite, including Messenger (email client), Collabra (Intranet collaboration tool), Conference (real-time Intranet conferencing), Composer (document generation), Calendar (Intranetwork scheduling tool), and Java-based IBM host on demand solution (to bridge the gap between host systems data and intranets).


Enterprise Platform for Internet Computing, an environment for developing applications that run on NCs  


AXXiON network management software and Oracle database monitoring and back-up systems 


All of Oracle's products will support their Network Computing Architecture. InterOffice 4.0, Oracle's Web-based collaboration software, incorporates three productivity applets that will run on network computers; a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics, code-named HatTrick 

PhaseNet Systems

The PXCH and PXCS families of x-ready network computers  


Starbuck is a Java Rapid Application Development tool  

Sanar Systems  

APPI-500 X-ready network computer  


Tarantella allows Java clients with access to graphical X applications, character-based Unix applications, and Unix SQL data across the Internet  

Sun Microsystems

Netra J server, JavaStations, Java, and Solaris  


XP200, XP200H, XP400, and XP400D series of X-ready network computers
WinDD software enables deployment of 32-bit Windows apps to non-Windows machines  


WIT, the Web Interface Toolkit, is just one of the Web business-application development and deployment tools  


SoftNC is Java code that creates a graphical end-user display that is downloaded to the NC  

Trusted Information Systems

Gauntlet Firewall is a gateway server that uses Microsoft's AuthentiCode digital certificate security to only allow ActiveX applets with the proper credentials into your system  


Applet Designer Pro and Enterprise are Visual Basic 4.0 add-ins that allows developers to create Java applets with Visual Basic -- the products also support JDBC  


Unisys Announces Support for Oracle's Network Computing Architecture
ClearPath Enterprise servers, ClearPath SMP servers, and Aquanta PCs

The WebBook Company

The WebBook NC  

Wyse Technologies

Winterm 4300SC, 4600, 4700SE NCs  


Issues and Controversy related to Network Computer

The difference between NC, PC and Dumb Terminal

In contrast to PCs, disk drives are optional with NCs. It depends on the design, the use, and the need. One thing is clear, though: Welding shut the case doesn't turn a PC into an NC. There's more to it than that (otherwise there'd be no point to it). Most NC clients will contain the operating system on Flash RAM or ROM, and all the user file storage is on the server system, so essentially there is no need for a hard drive. Some vendors may decide that they need a hard drive in the box, not for local file storage, but as a cache. Since tons of information may pass back and forth across the network, a small hard drive acting only as a cache could speed operations significantly.

For cost-of-ownership reasons, software on NC commonly aren't upgradable because there is nothing that needs to be upgraded. If you think about the concept of the NC, you can see that upgrades, whether software or hardware, ought to be done on the server, not the client.

A "dumb" terminal is a system which displays the output of a shell or interface from a host system. They don't do any computing themselves, beyond what's needed to display text or, in the case of X terminals, graphics. Everything is done on the host computer.

That doesn't describe the NC client. An NC is designed to take advantage of the fact that it's on a network. It does its processing locally, just as a PC or Unix client system does, but all other aspects of the system are up for grabs. In current designs, it's common for all computing to be done by the client, but all or most application and data storage to be on one or more servers. There are numerous advantages to doing so. Since NCs make fewer demands on the server, a modest server can support more NCs than X terminals or even dumb terminals.

In the long run, NCs will run the gamut in how they use the network, including situations where certain kinds of processing will take place on compute servers dedicated to special tasks. You see this now in Unix networks, where high-powered tasks, such as graphics rendering, can be farmed out by the workstation to specialized graphics servers elsewhere on the network.

The Performance of NC

Client Performance

  • CPU Speed

NCs are not slow or low-powered when you consider that many PCs have less powerful microprocessors than many NC clients. For example, the Digital/ARM StrongARM 110 CPU is faster than the 200MHz Pentium Pro in some applications, yet it is about $35 to $40 each in production quantities compared with the several hundred dollar Pentium Pro. Digital's semiconductor group has released Caffeine-mark ratings (Java speed measurement) of Java performance for a prototype NC client using the StrongARM. In this test, a StrongARM 110 with 8MB of RAM came out with twice the performance marks as a 200MHz Pentium Pro with 64MB of RAM.

Other NC clients will contain CPUs such as the RISC-based Intel i960, quite respectable in performance. Sun Microsystems' approach is to create the picoJava, microJava, and ultraJava chips -- CPUs that contain the Java byte-code instruction set at the hardware level and perform without any optimization as fast as the traditional PC running a Java applet or application using the best just-in-time compilers.

  • Memory Size

Most NC clients today are designed with limited amounts of memory -- 8MB to 16MB -- and unlike most other systems, they do not include a virtual memory or memory paging system, which require disk drives. This means that the physical memory is all that you get. Windows users have just started to get a feel for functional virtual memory and almost everyone knows the problems the DOS memory limitations have caused. And now NC vendors will be limiting their client memory size?

Well, yes and no; and, it doesn't matter as much as you might think. Yes, they are shipping 8-megabyte NCs, but that's because the early systems are being sold into situations where users will be running one or two custom applications and not necessarily at the same time. A great many current NC applications lie in the floor of manufacturing plants, for example, where they will run at most two applications and only very select ones at that. No, they are not limited in RAM because in many cases, especially the adapted X terminals, they can be expanded to add as much RAM as you like, should you need it. For example, the NCD HMX line can contain up to a 136MB of RAM. You'll probably use that in rare situations, such as high-end 3D graphics viewing.

Also the comparison isn't always straightforward. Most NCs will be running Java-based applets or applications, which tend to be much smaller in code size and require much less processing power for the same level of performance. That's why you see so many NC clients with relatively small amounts of memory. People are boggled at NC clients with a few megabytes of RAM compared with 12- to 24MB for Windows or Unix systems. They are so accustomed to memory-abusing applications that it just hasn't sunk in that Java applications are different.

Software Performance

Java is slow, so NCs are too slow for any productive use. This statement is true in some cases, and to a limited extent; but it isn't exactly true in other cases. So far, most Java applications have been slower than comparable platform-dependent applications. The bytecode interpretation mechanism within Java uses several more steps than native opcode operations of the CPU. At some degree, you have to surrender a slight degree of performance to gain the platform neutrality aspect.

But remember, Java is still very new, and in the early stages of development. With improvements to its structure appearing this year -- especially to performance-related aspects such as graphics and events processing -- as well as better Just-In-Time compilers, the application software will come up to speed. Then, too, Java-based componentized applications can be expected to be much smaller than gigantic monolithic applications currently dominating the PC marketplace; smaller applications should run better than much larger ones, even if interpreted versus compiled.

From another angle, the CPUs that will go into the next generation of NC clients will sport a better setting for Java as discussed previously.

One last fact when it comes to the performance of some applications. Vendors have been so eager to release their Java-based applications that they have pre-empted themselves into releasing alpha versions. Alpha software is buggy, contains a lot of debugging code, and has had little or no optimization; they are consequently slow, clunky pieces of software that are good to look at, terrible to test, and even worse, to use.

Network Performance

The load of network generated by NCs is no more so than other networks built for NetWare or Unix systems. Ethernet and other current network technologies are capable of handling the load of an NCnet. People worry that since applications have to be downloaded to the NC to run, this will flood the network with traffic. Not true. Apps are downloaded once, then cached locally; they aren't run off the server, or downloaded over and over. In addition, remember that Java-based software is expected to be much smaller than its PC cousins. Smaller NC applications, coupled with a compressed-format application-distribution system, can actually result in applications that start faster than locally-stored PC applications.

One reason NC apps written in Java can be smaller is that the applications can be modularized; there isn't the need to create monolithic kitchen-sink apps that take up so much of the PC's resources. PC developers have dreamed of component applications in Windows that will allow them to do the same, but it hasn't happened yet.

Some people get confused by the fact that access to the Internet is slow. Fortunately, NCnets are currently designed for the corporate intranet, not the external, bogged-down Internet. Most of the time you will be using the server on your LAN to download applications and transfer data across your much speedier internal network.

Server Performance

The glass rooms of yesteryear raise fears that storing your information on a server translates to less access and heavy time-sharing burdens. People moved to PCs because they did not want to be slowed down by the work that others were doing on their time-shared, multi-user systems.

NCs take the tasks to the desktop; just as with PCs, NC programs run locally and are not affected by the work of others. And although users will be accessing data from a server, a great amount of work is already done that way:

  • You download email from a server.

  • Much of the information you access involves a database server.

  • You reach across the Internet with the help of a Web server.

  • You correspond with others in a workgroup bulletin board through a Lotus Notes or other groupware server.

  • To retrieve, update, and return files requires your network file server.

User Control

If you tell a corporate desktop user you are taking away his or her computer to replace it with an NC, the immediate reaction is "NO! It's MINE! PLEASE don't take it away!". This is a visceral defense; the user thinks freedom is being replaced with chains of corporate control.

But the NC Shift doesn't eliminate personal freedom and property -- potentially it does just the opposite. With the NC Shift, your personal, virtual space still exists -- only now you can access it from other physical locations. Depending on the implementation and the needs of the organization, the NC user can gain access to wider-ranging resources available on the network, maintain up-to-date software, and take advantage of centralized benefits such as regular backups. The user is as protected by his password on NCs as he is on PCs.

Users of Unix workstations have been familiar with this level of freedom for many years. They keep all files, email, and other documents on the Unix system and access them over the network, using tools like telnet or through X Windows. They don't feel controlled by the IS department.

Another fear is that users will be cut off by complicated network computer such as Java. Again such fear is groundless. Just like you don't need to know how to write Windows apps to use Microsoft Word or Lotus Organizer, you don't really need to know anything about programming in Java to use network clients. Learning how to use the environment shouldn't be much of an issue, however, beyond learning how to log in and click on a URL to start an application. Several environments are vying for the opportunity to offer simplicity and consistency to the NCnet user. JavaSoft, for example, has built its application environment, HotViews, for extreme simplicity and ease of use. The user interface is non-complex, organized, and straightforward -- a step in the opposite direction GUI's have taken in recent years. On the other hand, TriTeal's SoftNC offers users a choice of familiar environments -- Windows, Motif, Open Look -- running on everything from NCs to PCs to Unix systems, making consistency across platforms into a big virtue.

Software Availability

Well, not many. The number of software packages directly designed and developed for the NCnet is still well below a hundred. But there are plenty of vendors who are trying to fill that gap right now. Corel, IBM, and Lotus have already proved that their applications can transcend the clutches of platform-dependent computing into a Java NC world. Corel is actively promoting the Office for Java application suite which contains WordPerfect and Quattro Pro and runs on any Java-capable platform; the Marimba Castinet version even runs through your Java-enabled browser (through Lotus, not to be left behind, has been working on its new Java-based client to access Notes servers. It is also working on a new integrated environment/personal information manager known as Lookout to its NC environment. Lookout is similar in concept to the new Microsoft Office 97 Outlook.

We stand at the intermediary position between the world of traditional application development and widespread Java application development. In this transitory period, the future always looks brighter than the present. However, with the interest in Java development growing at a phenomenal rate, we may see a mass infusion of applications into the market over the next two years.

However, almost all the NC client vendors have incorporated a Web browser into their system and some also, include Virtual NT clients. So you can access information and applications of other systems that are not yet native to the NCnet. Already, this gives you access to thousands of popular software packages while still achieving the goal of reducing management costs by minimizing the client environment and focusing the data within a common area.

Bear in mind also that access to packaged software is not the driving issue for many customers. They create custom software for access to corporate databases, and client systems are dedicated to these uses. The ability to run 10,000 DOS and Windows programs off the shelf is not the point; the ability to run the same (Java-based) custom application on a wide variety of hardware and OS.

Another concern is that the server platform for the NC clients is still hard to find. Sun Microsystems currently has the Netra J server which provides the application environment for their JavaStations. X terminal vendors are relying on their X11-based access to Unix and other server systems built into their NCs; Although, Oracle has announced plans for their server suite, but will wait until their NC licensees have released client systems at their planned date.

Portability and Remote Access

With desktop PCs, employees are often limited in their ability to share information with others, and even with themselves when they are not at their desks. To provide access to files and programs, we spend time and money creating special remote-access software so users can view or work with this information from machines other than their own stations.

With an NC, data and programs (and even workspace settings and preferences) are placed on the server. When users need to, they can access their data from any NC location and they have their complete environment set up for them no matter where they go. You no longer need to have a desktop shackled to your foot.

How about when you really on the go? Currently people using laptop computers have all the application programs and files with them on the local disk. Network computer user will have to rely on some sort of wireless network. Such technology is in rapid development. For example, IBM has created a Mobile and Wireless Systems Unit dedicated to creating and developing new ways of computing remotely. Some of the products that they currently offer include: RF Data Collection Terminals, RF Multi-Function Terminals, AS/400 Wireless LAN Adapters, Wireless LAN Entry Adapters, Wireless LAN Adapters, and Wireless Modems. By utilizing RF technology instead of the traditional, more expensive cellular method, IBM hopes that it's products will offer an inexpensive, simple solution to the rising demand for greater bandwidth and mobile communications. These products, combined with the Network Computer could change the face of computing and communications altogether.


As with the introduction of anything new system, concerns about security have arisen. Due to the fact that data will be stored remotely (on the server), speculation has arisen that data integrity & security may be compromised.

The security of NC clients depends on software application security and user level authentication and authorization.

Application security is addressed with the recently released Java Security API to provide Signed Applets. This lets you uniquely identify applications to confirm their validity.

User-level security depends on how things are managed. NCs that are closed boxes with no floppy drives offer administrators the obvious advantage of being able to control all software through the servers. Depending upon the system, policy, and capability, users may also be able to install their own software in their private areas.

User-level authentication, still new to the PC market, will be a required part of the NCnet system through the use of user passwords and/or hardware-based security such as SmartCard technology. SmartCards have a small microprocessor that contains complex identity information.

While the security concerns of network computer are somewhat justified, new methods of encryption and IP tunneling (data channeling) have solved many of the security concerns that face Internet applications. However, the US Government has restricted the use of such tactical encryption techniques- such as PGP (Pretty Good Protection), due to the fact that even the FBI/CIA and other government agencies cannot access files that have been encrypted with this technology.

Another kind of security problem arise when Java and/or ActiveX is used in network computer. The Java applet or ActiveX object actually runs on the client system. By definition, then, they have the access and control to user's applications and files. They offer virus writers and hackers a perfect network entree. Java applets, in general, are currently not allowed to access a hard drive or files, or open up new net connections, while ActiveX objects do. Since these technology are relatively new, this kind of security bugs are being discovered and fixed.


Even when starting off in a whole new direction, it would be silly of vendors to utterly ignore the application base of today. Several of the products listed here already include access to Windows applications using Virtual NT technologies such as WinFrame and NTrigue. This system allows users to run Windows applications on a remote server system and have them display on their local screen, akin to how X11 has worked in Unix systems for many years. Even Sun has licensed the core technology behind these systems to create a pure Java version of the client component to incorporate into the JavaStation software line in the near future.

The NCD Universal Network Computer architecture, for example, incorporates a client to their WinCenter environment. The HDS @workStation connects through a native version of Insignia Solution's NTrigue client. The new HotJava Views environment will soon include a Java version of this same client package as well. The same goes for products from Wyse, Boundless Technologies, Tektronix, and IBM.

These client applications provide the link to the Windows NT desktop environment and applications. They require a dedicated Intel-based server to run the Virtual NT server application, and display the applications through the NC client. These NT servers have been rewritten from the original source code so that they can have multiple users running an NT desktop at the same time from remote stations (otherwise not possible in the regular NT server product, which is not multiuser).

You don't get 100 percent compatibility with all Windows applications because NT itself is not fully compatible with Windows. But you get access to the vast majority of unmodified Windows applications, a massive number indeed.

Applications of Network Computer

From some of the remarks, you would think NCs will cook, clean, and even do the laundry while running anything that you can think of, including errands. And of course, vendors love to promise things while forgetting to mention they may not come to fruition for a year or more. However, NCs aren't right for every situation.

In its current incarnation, NC clients are aimed at the mass corporate market application base in medium to large corporate networks. One common use is to replace terminals accessing corporate databases. It should prove easier to develop and manage data access applications when the clients are NCs than PCs, especially where the PCs are currently being used as complicated, quirky substitutes for dumb terminals. A small business with two or three PCs can't usually justify the cost of an NC server system, at least not at this point in its evolution.

The following is the ideal corporate network settings for an upgrade to an NCnet:

  • A large number of desktop PCs or terminals performing similar tasks.

  • A large number of desktop PCs/terminals which run a set of applications only part of the time.

  • Heavy server dependency for information by numerous client stations.

  • An application which has to be distributed to a large number of desktop PCs/terminals.

So what is "large"? This depends upon the organization. It is recommended a starting point of 50 desktop PCs/terminals. For smaller numbers of stations, there are still cost savings available for moving over to an NCnet, but it is amortized over fewer stations. And, if you are in the following situations, you my not want to change to NCnet.

  • Each station requires very heavy disk activity, such as image-processing stations, multimedia development stations.

  • You require specific applications not available for the NCnet or you have strong demand for the latest personal productivity applications.

  • You require specific hardware not available for the NC.

  • Users need very heavy calculations to be performed per station.

  • Yours is a security environments where stations require total independence.

  • Your users are power mobile users who range outside the corporate environment.

  • Your relationship to their corporate network is fairly casual (e-mail and some file storage, say)

In the home market, one may see some form of network computer such as Internet appliances which provide dedicated access to the World Wide Web and other services. The PC will probably continue alongside these Internet devices rather than be replaced by it.

The Impact and the Future of Network Computer

Current Applications

Limited Use and Purchase of NC

In today's early stage of market development, NC clients are being used primarily to replace old-technology terminals. Most NC buyers are using these products as point-of-sale devices and in specific applications only. In fact, it is not surprising that much of the market for NC devices lie in industries such as retail, manufacturing plants, industrial floors, etc. In these industries relatively few purchases are made a year, but each purchase is usually in volume. This is why you do (and will) see purchases of 2,000 units of this NC client from one customer, a 1,000 of another, and so on. According to recent reader survey by NC World magazine, most of corporations do not plan to purchase network computer or predicting a very small order in the near future. Most of them takes "wait and see" attitude.

One of the reasons is that there are so many standards around. Until the inevitable shakeout, IT managers will continue to watch vendors jockeying for NC positioning. The fear of being left behind in the NC market is what's driving vendors to push their own specs. "Everyone is out for their own aggrandizement," said IDC's Zwetchkenbaum. "[But] it may backfire and shrink the total market."

However, in a study of the corporate market for network computers (NCs), the Yankee Group has found that NCs are quickly gaining mindshare among the largest 100 U.S. companies. Some preliminary results of the Yankee Group study are:

  • 17% of the companies surveyed have budgeted for NCs in 1997.

  • 54% of the companies are piloting or evaluating NCs today.

  • 65% of the companies plan to purchase NCs in the next 2 years.

"As the majority of corporations expand the scope of their intranets, and mission-critical applications become widely available, we expect to see the demand for NCs to grow even faster," said Allen Bonde, Director of Internet Computing Strategies at the Yankee Group. "It's not just the cost of ownership, but also the rapid adoption of new intranet computing models that is driving the move to NCs."

Resistance from PC user and PC industry.

Most of the people is not sure whether NC is actually going to cost less than NC. Most of issues discussed in the previous section are people's concern.

It is not surpassing that even today, many people, including computer industry executive Steve Ballmer, VP Microsoft, are skeptical of the NC's success. Ballmer thinks that the NC will not have as great an impact on the PC market as Oracle executives hope. It is no surprise that companies like Microsoft, which profit from client-resident software sales, are hoping that the Network Computer will not succeed. Microsoft's continued success depends on PC dominance and client-resident software, and the NC is a direct threat to both.


Future Market  

According to Zona Research, the estimated number of NC client units to be shipped this year will be approximately 300,000. By 2000, research firms variously estimate total shipments of a several million units. This does not break the PC's record of 50 or 100 million by any margin, but is quick growth, and it may turn out to be very conservative, if things break right in the coming year or two.

Many people argue that if the NC attracts millions of new users to the Internet, that the increased traffic will cause the entire system to crash/fail. Unless the network infrastructure is expanded to support the estimated number of users (200 million by year 2000 ), this prediction may not hold true. However, new advancements in telecommunications technology like IBM's RF and Wireless communications systems provide a solution to the limited bandwidth problem. When combined with an increase in fiber-optic and coaxial lines, the problem of increased network traffic may never arise.

For as long as history has existed, it has been clear that with any new change also comes resistance and skepticism. In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Similarly, Ken Olson, president & chairman & founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, in 1977 said, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." It is almost humorous to read these predictions today when we have seen the incredible impact that computers have had on society.