Networked abilities Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

Several years ago, network computers were going to replace your PC, according to the published reports.

The reasoning was that a "dumb" terminal connected to a powerful server would be cheaper and more efficient than having a PC loaded with software on every desk.

The reports were wrong. Today's workers need PCs, and costs came down to rival what a network computer would cost. A PC can run software on its own, store programs and files and operate independently or be connected to a server or other PCs. A network computer can't do much other than retrieve information from the central server.

The network computer was pronounced dead. Now it's making a comeback -- sort of.

"The network computing people had it partly right," says Michael Gold, senior research engineer at SRI Consulting. "There is no question that when you put resources on a server deep in the heart of a network, it makes things more portable because you don't have to carry anything. You know that at the next destination you will have access to the information that you need.

"The part they had wrong was taking all the resources away from the end user was going to save money. A PC is necessary for knowledge workers in the new economy."

Mobility of data has become a focal point in today's world.

"Cell phones are increasingly becoming necessary," says Gold. "The ability to reach data in a mobile environment to the extent that it is possible is also important. These mobile platforms aren't very smart. They're getting better, but they're never going to be able to keep up with the PC. Because the PC doesn't have to be portable, you can make it very powerful.

"The PC has to coexist with these thinner clients, and that means relying more on server resources in the future than we do today."

Thus, the network computer lives, serving as a sort of go-between for the PC and the mobile devices, storing information, and in some instances, applications, for both. No matter where you are, you would have access to the information important to you.

"The cell phone is inadequate for some tasks because the screen is too small," says Gold. "You couldn't write a complicated spreadsheet on one. But what if lots of tasks were as easy as checking your e-mail on a strange hotel computer? You can do a lot of work that way, not just answering and reading e-mail."

The result might be an application service provider that would take your voice transcription that is read into a telephone and turn it into text. Information at work and at home would be stored on a central server somewhere, making it accessible to your Internet phone or other handheld device.

"Maybe you are in a remote place visiting a client, for example," says Gold. "You have a cell phone, but no PC. The client asks you a question, and a report back at the office contains the answer. Ideally, you would be able to connect to your PC back at the office with your cell phone and instruct it to e-mail the file to the client's computer."

In this case, the cell phone doesn't handle the opening of the complicated report, just the order to the PC to transmit it to another location to a device that can handle it.

But it's also possible that the phone itself may handle it. Applications on the network computer, such as Microsoft Office, could be rented by the month, and the information could have filters to direct the information into a format that your phone or other device could handle, even with its limited computing power.

Parts of this vision are happening today, while others are still a few years away. Microsoft is working on its Microsoft.Net service that revives some of the ideals of the network computer. It wants to squeeze as much performance out of cell phones and PDAs as possible by taking advantage of centralized storage services and application providers. It is providing a toolkit to develop applications, hardware and services to enable this vision to happen, but they aren't the only ones.

So expect to hear more about network computers in the future.How to reach: SRI Consulting, http://future.sri.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.