NCs look set to thrive in business market

IBM, NCD and Acorn have shown their network computer intentions and the former pair look to be more likely to succeed.

Network computers: are they for business or pleasure?

In the past two weeks, three versions of the much-vaunted network computer have been launched in New Zealand.

Both the Explora and ExploraPro Network Computers from NCD and the Network Station from IBM are being touted as business tools that reduce the cost of running a network.

The other, the NetStation from Acorn, is going after the home/education market. Both the Explora and the Network Station look somewhat similar (a small black box about the size of a slim laptop) and have similar capabilities (they can run Windows-based programmes and can tap into the corporate network). The Acorn is designed for the home market. It uses a TV set as a monitor and can be operated with a remote control handset.

The Explora and the ExploraPro are real products. Some 60-odd have already been installed in New Zealand. The NetStation is also shipping in New Zealand, with a few units undergoing evaluation at a number of sites.

The Network Station is a little more nebulous. It has been seen in New Zealand and will begin shipping “by the end of the year”.

Both the IBM and NCD products look impressive at first glance. They are small, cheap (well, at least relatively so), and come packed with lots of speed and other capabilities.

They seem to have a specific place in the corporate network. As the technology improves and the idea takes off, the cost is likely to drop and these devices could become a fixture in organisations large and small.

The Acorn NetStation is a much more ambitious product. Having produced the blueprint for the Oracle network computer, Acorn is going for the moon. Not content with just building a corporate appliance, it is targeting the education market and home users as well.

The corporate market is developing quickly, but as a business tool Acorn has its work cut out for it, as its current user base is primarily education.

Trying to convince IT managers that the same computer that their children use in Form Three is the answer to their prayers might be tough.

Is the home market ready for a network computer? There are a number of challenges that Acorn will have to overcome if it wants to expand beyond its good name in education and into the home market.

Acorn’s target market is not those people who have a PC or are likely to buy one--the NetStation’s capabilities are too limited--but people who are not likely to buy a PC but want to connect to the Internet. There could be some problems.

For a start, the vast majority of people who don’t have or want a computer probably don’t want to be on the “information superhighway” anyway. Even if the NetStation is as easy to operate as a VCR (and how many otherwise competent people cannot operate their VCR?), the Internet in its current form is not a model of simplicity. Just deciding which sites to visit requires a certain amount of knowledge.

And the Internet is active while the TV is passive. The TV takes you to oblivion while the Internet requires that you know where to find oblivion before you can get there.

And you have to keep moving from one screen to the next. Nobody I know has ever fallen asleep while online--it takes too much concentration.

But the crux is that for the home user, the content just isn’t there. Sure, there are some nice sites, but nothing that will make you come back night after night. As mindless entertainment, the Internet is like kissing your cousin.

The Acorn strategy is admirable, but maybe five years too early. Both IBM and NCD have a target market that is ready and willing (and with budget). They will probably do quite well. And other vendors will follow. But Acorn will have to rethink its marketing strategy or it will run up significant costs before it hits its potential.

Right now the Internet market is corporate. Those that cater to that market will be successful. Those who go after the home market exclusively will have a long, hard road to follow.

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