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Network computing could be nirvana

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If the network computer (NC) is the Next Big Thing in the technology juggernaut, then I say bring it on! I'm ready for it. If it delivers half of what its proponents promise, it really will be a revolution.

I'd love to boot Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Andy Grove (Intel) out of my office at work and my family room at home. I'd welcome in Scott McNealy (Sun Microsystems) and Larry Ellison (Oracle) and maybe even Eric Schmidt (Novell). I'll use my Wintel computer as a boat anchor. Donate all those Microsoft discs and CDs to the local gun club to use as clay pigeons.I'm ready for a new computing paradigm. I'm tired of having to baby my pouting, demanding computer. I'm tired of feeding it new software, installing and configuring hardware. I'm tired of seeing the "fatal errors" in the middle of writing a column.

I'm tired of having my children continually call me from something really important (like Monday Night Football) saying, "Dad, (choose one) this game won't work/I can't print my homework/my e-mail crashed/why is this frozen/I can't get on the Internet."

At work, I'm tired of having to call the systems department at least a couple of times a week and have someone make the long trek to my office to fix some glitch.

I'm tired of having my software get outdated. Every time I blink there are new versions of software for word processing, spread-sheets, e-mail, faxing, budgeting, scheduling and most popular games. It's nearly impossible to stay ahead but, if you don't, your old stuff invariably isn't compatible with other new stuff and your computer goes haywire as a result.

The NC evangelists, like McNealy and Ellison, both multi-billionaires and heads of enormously successful companies, are promising a happy new computer nirvana where all those above-mentioned problems go away. Life will be just dandy.

At least if it works.

The ramifications here for small businesses are very, very big.

McNealy and Ellison argue that unlimited bandwidth is coming very quickly to homes and offices. That means the network can become the computer. All of the software, data files and applications that now reside on your computer's hard drive can instead be stored on a server somewhere (it won't matter where because with high bandwidth it will be instantaneously available) and you'll access it via the Internet.

Under this scenario, you'll never have to install new software, and your software will always be up-to-date. Your system should be about as reliable as a toaster and as easy to use as a microwave oven.

Wouldn't that be nice! Are these guys who are promoting this stuff for real? Or are they so blinded by their envy and hatred of Microsoft that they're a little wacky? Well, it probably won't happen quite as fast as McNealy and Ellison would like, but don't count the NC out. A lot about it makes very good sense.

In the "network is the computer" world, a highly secure, high-bandwidth Internet (or intranet or extranet) becomes the center of all computing. The Internet already offers an example of how it would work. Today, many small and large businesses operate Web sites, but they often don't host the Web site themselves. Usually, the telephone company or an Internet service provider hosts the business Web site on a server somewhere out there.

The businesses control their Web sites. They can change their Web pages, update them, have access to them, but the sites are hosted on a server elsewhere.

In the NC world, this model would simply be extended. A business would purchase inexpensive plug-and-play terminals (costing less than $500) with little internal computing power. But they would connect full time to the Internet, where all the power would reside. The company would subscribe, for a monthly fee, to whatever package or suite of business software it desired, which would be stored or hosted on powerful servers somewhere. The servers would be properly backed up, and a business's private files and data would be safe and secure.

A secretary needing to type a letter would click on an icon and a word processing program would be instantly delivered to his desktop. A bookkeeper would call up accounting data to do monthly reports. The NCs would be connected to local audio speakers and printers as usual.

A small business would never have to upgrade software because that would be done at the server level. The business would never have to install software or hardware, make programs work together or figure out glitches and bugs.

In fact, as this industry matures, many or most businesses would probably not have to employ in-house computer and systems people.

Similar things would be going on at home. When the prices of NCs drop to $300, I'd buy three or four of them and put them at strategic locations around the house. As a family, we'd subscribe to whatever programs and software we desired, including games, an online encyclopedia, word processing, budgeting, maybe a cookbook, etc., and pay someone $50 or $60 a month to use the software, host our stuff and keep it updated. We would, of course, still have access to all the free stuff on the Internet. I would never have to install another program or upgrade old software.

All of this poses a major challenge, of course, to Bill Gates and Microsoft, which have created many billionaires and millionaires by monopolizing the PC operating system with Windows, writing fat software programs that have to be installed on hard drives - and forcing other software developers to do the same. All that computer code on all those hard drives.

NCs don't need hard drives and don't need Windows. In fact, IBM, Netscape, Novell, Oracle and Sun Microsystems - five very big companies - are collaborating on a new, open, Internet-based platform using the Java programming language that would not be controlled by any one company. It would use open standards that anyone could write software to.

It would run on any computer, including PCs, Macintoshes, old 486s and 386s, and wouldn't require an Intel chip.

So the computing world might just move from a Wintel, PC-centric system to an open, Internet-centric system. We just connect to the Internet and everything we could possibly need or want is out there, instantaneously available. What happens at the network and server level is immensely complex and will require increasing numbers of brilliant programmers, network engineers and so forth.

But what happens at the home and business level is immensely simple. Just plug and play. Click and do your thing. The complexity is in the network, not in the computer.

Sounds good to me.