November 19, 2004 4:00 AM PST
Perspective: The second coming of the network computerSee all Perspectives
The famously egomaniacal oracle of Redwood Shores has been the source of great copy over the years, running his mouth off so often and so outrageously that the Fourth Estate could hardly dream of getting a more delicious character to pick at.
But for all his bloviation and bluster, Oracle CEO Ellison remains a technologist and a serious influencer, and so when he talks, the industry does listen. He stirred up a controversy a year ago, when he said the enterprise software business was destined to consolidate and then gave weight to his words by launching an unwanted takeover bid for PeopleSoft.
We'll know soon whether the PeopleSoft gambit was the right bet. Friday marks the take-it-or-leave-it deadline Oracle established for PeopleSoft shareholders to tender their shares at $24. If they decline, then Oracle says the deal's off.
All this is a good walk-up to Oracle OpenWorld, the company's annual customer confab, which opens next month. It so happens we're also close to the anniversary of one of Ellison's other more controversial predictions. In a major address five years ago this month, Ellison tried to dust off his idea of the network computer.
The basic idea was that the PC as we know it was living on borrowed time. It inevitably would be replaced by a network device--small, inexpensive and untethered--that accessed data from a central network rather than from a hard drive. Updates and bug fixes would be automatic, and administrative costs would be just about zero.
Oracle's CEO was panned by many folks in the press and analyst communities for promoting a pie-in-the-sky vision of the future that oh, by the way, also would give Ellison an advantage against his archrival, Bill Gates. (No more operating systems, no more Microsoft, etc.)
Microsoft's still around and thriving, but the funny thing is that most of Ellison's prediction basically came true--though not in the way he thought it would.
When he started promoting the network computer in 1995 and 1996, bandwidth was scarce, computers were slow, and most machines were expensive. What's more, Ellison's idea was predicated on the notion that this evolution would occur with Java--though back then, Java barely worked.
Like so many other predictions, this one simply was ahead of its time. The network computing revolution came and went, and most people never took notice. But it did occur alongside the emergence of standard, Web-connected PCs and of server-based applications that dynamically generate HTML.
While Ellison was off giving speeches on the subject during the middle of the last decade, there was little that came close to qualifying as a real Web application. The world's now a lot different. The Web is used for a lot more than content like text, links and images. We use the Internet to do things--whether it be to send e-mail, research travel or tackle customer relationship management.
Ellison was only guessing at the time, but now software is developed and delivered into the browser, while desktop applications (or so-called client-server applications) are clearly on the wane. Networked applications are finally real, but they are called Web applications. It's Ellison's vision of the network computer by any other name.
Charles Cooper is CNET News.com's executive editor of commentary.
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