From Multimedia Futures, a sister publication. As Greek myth has it, when Cassandra broke her promise and refused Apollo’s advances, he gave her the gift of prophesy but on the condition that no one would believe her. All those nostalgic proponents of ‘thin clients’ and ‘it’s just another Xterminal’ must often feel like our Greek […]
From Multimedia Futures, a sister publication.
As Greek myth has it, when Cassandra broke her promise and refused Apollo’s advances, he gave her the gift of prophesy but on the condition that no one would believe her. All those nostalgic proponents of ‘thin clients’ and ‘it’s just another Xterminal’ must often feel like our Greek heroine. The people behind the Network Computer – spearheaded by Oracle’s Larry Ellison – obviously believe they are onto something and will conveniently listen to, and quote, more positive consumer surveys rather than the plausibility of genuine uptake. In Oracle’s case, it has more to benefit from distributed computing than many, but everyone in the industry is asking, Is now the right time where last decade, and the decade before weren’t? What is to stop us having another stalled attempt at video-on-demand on our hands? The first network computers are out this winter with quantity in the spring, and if you believe the hype, they will be selling like hotcakes before the following Christmas is over. At this point Cassandra and her pessimistic press pundits are just waiting to shake their heads and say ‘I told you so.’ And I’m tempted to agree. Whenever I hear the fantastic promises of today’s technology marketeers, three words always come to mind : 1950s Kitchen Ads. The automated, interactive, do-it-all, efficient and gleaming post-war kitchen never made it into any but the most dedicated homes because, simply, people had better things to spend their money on. So where do we put comments like Acorn’s Herman Hauser: I’ve never seen response like this. People are ready for this; they feel like they are missing out on something dramatic that is going on in the world.
Do they? Really? Internet is already leveling off in the popularity stakes which means Joe Public is tired of nerd politics. Two years ago, Internet was anorak domain; 12 months ago everyone was in a mad gold rush to get a presence on the Web. And now this. The aphorism that technology takes 15 years to disappear – by which it means to be truly accepted – is getting shorter, but not that short, surely! Want to access the Web? If you’re reading this, you’ve probably got access to it already. But what about the grocery store manager round the corner? Will he be willing to pay $500 to do it? Really? The success of network computers won’t rest on novelties like Internet access, but on true distributed computing and the ability to do things that we do already, but in a shorter time, or a more convenient setting – the ability to run an application from elsewhere on a wide area network. What the Network Computer offers is the difference between a television set with an aerial, and a television set, a videoplayer with a library of cassettes. A common criticism of the NC is that no one wants to store their data remotely. Who says? The most common complaint of the computer among the computer-illiterate is that it can decide to switch off and single-handedly lose everything. Certainly there may be worries about security and privacy of data, but these are mostly limited to the cognoscenti and power-users, not the people who want to type an occasional letter, send an email to granny in Australia, register a vote on a television program, or link home shopping with their bank accounts and personal finances.When distributed computing enters the affray properly, you won’t need a laptop, just your own Smart card and any network computer(if the standards are maintained rigidly enough) anywhere in the world becomes your own personal computer. The next question is: How interactive do we want to be? We are moving to a more tailored, interactive environment, said a Forrester analyst last year. In the office, perhaps, but after along day at the slaughterhouse, do you really want to go home, switch on the TV and start buzzing questions into the current quiz show or surfing the Web and writing email? I doubt it. Interactive technology will be popular, but only on a level like the French Minitel system where the range of options is simple to navigate and the equipment is free or extremely cheap. There is a danger that over-enthusiastic reports of the network computer will only serve to dampen what will inevitably become a remarkably successful piece of consumer technology. Shopping, banking, working, talking, looking on the international networks will be popular, but not for a good few years yet and not sufficiently cheap for our grocer until perhaps his children are old enough to have one. Which isn’t to say it isn’t going to happen, just that it takes the whole on- line caboodle to be popular first and a transfer to that sort of commercial structure is going to take time. High on the list of wannabe Cassandras is Microsoft, of course, who would rather everyone kept using the PC. If the NC was available now, at zero price, and the services were there and there was a sustainable secure method of paying for them, then yes, Microsoft would probably be out of business. But the time it will take to pitch the NC just right will allow Microsoft to adapt to any emerging consumer market. In the meantime, it and Intel are constantly pushing up the glitz surrounding the PC in the hope that people will feel like they are missing out on Wintel instead. In this way, rather neatly, the NC doubters may better res emble Cassandra’s mother, Hecuba, who successfully blinded the greedy king Polymestor and his children after luring them with false treasures. And that, indeed, would be tragedy.
By Morgan Holt