The Network Computer concept is having a hard time taking off--if it ever does take off in a significant way, that is. Now we learn that the official NC flag bearer (Oracle chief Larry Ellison is the NC's unofficial champion) has gotten rid of sales personnel assigned to the corporate market. This means from now on, the consumer market will be NCI's target, which sharply alters the original mission of the NC--to be a replacement for hard-to-maintain corporate desktop PCs.
Despite the dramatic switch, as the year draws to an end, I must confess I find myself wanting to put the father of the NC on a pedestal of sorts. Instead of dinging him, I want to praise him.
To be sure, Ellison set out to change the personal computing world when he kicked off the NC campaign more than two years ago. But he did not mean to, most definitely did not want to, and certainly could not have anticipated how the change would play out.
His plan was to force the circling of the PC wagons with marauding, low-cost NC devices, to win the battle for corporate and home buyers' purse strings, and generally to make the PC irrelevant. Remember, in his first public comments on this subject he declared the PC obsolete, the Intel architecture unworkable, and Microsoft's products passée. In other words, he wanted to put an end to the Wintel duopoly and declared himself and his NC solution the answer to everything that was wrong with personal computers and the computing paradigm based on them.
Larry may have appeared to be a Don Quixote, but his tilting at the PC windmills put in motion conceptual changes--albeit it indirectly--that until his crusade were getting lip service at best. Now low-cost computers, managed PCs, cost of ownership, and simplicity are words that Bill Gates and Andrew Grove live by.
Perhaps the biggest "contribution" Larry and his NC crusade brought about is the sub-$1,000 PC phenomenon. If not for this notion of computing with a $300 NC, it would be hard to imagine Intel and the PC makers willingly sacrificing fat profit margins to serve consumers. I wonder if he imagined in his wildest dreams that the cheap computing device would actually turn out to be the very PC he meant to slay?
The attrition at NCI may be an indication that Larry realizes his work on the NC front is done, and that he needs to get back to Oracle's core business. He may not have brought the gift of the Network Computer, those warm-hearted TV ads notwithstanding. But unknowingly--and without meaning to--he has effected profound changes in the PC industry. For this, we owe a bit of gratitude to Larry Ellison. Those of us ecstatic at the notion of a $500 PC certainly should not look a gift horse in the mouth.
As editor in chief of CNET News.com, Jai Singh is responsible for overseeing all the news efforts of CNET Networks.
Before joining CNET in January 1996, Singh headed the news operation at InfoWorld, one of the leading technology newsweeklies. He also spent nearly four years with PC Week--first as the software editor and later as assistant news editor.
During the mid-1980s, Singh spearheaded a 20-hour-a-day news operation for one of the pioneering online services, The Source, later acquired by CompuServe.
Singh holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from American University.