Column: All eyes on the network computer

Here's a prediction from an unabashed enthusiast of the low-cost, low-maintenance network computer (NC): The NC eventually will displace PCs as the preferred desktop machine for large organisations and home users.

Here's a prediction from an unabashed enthusiast of the low-cost, low-maintenance network computer (NC): The NC eventually will displace PCs as the preferred desktop machine for large organisations and home users.

This won't happen overnight, of course, but it will happen much faster than most people expect. What follows is the scenario under which NCs will be accepted as a mainstream alternative to PCs within three years.

Early adoption (early 1997): Universities adopt NCs for cost advantages. Hotels install NCs in lobbies and rooms for business travelers. Companies buy some NCs for executives and salespeople on a trial basis. Analysts and writers who pooh-poohed NCs buy one to show off to friends.

First applications (mid-1997): Large organisations begin replacing dumb terminals with NCs. AS/400, Unix and mainframe applications get a much-needed facelift. Legacy applications get new life from browser and Java capabilities.

Information systems people are surprised at how easy it is to re- engineer applications by using Internet, intranet and NC technologies because existing applications and databases can be used. There's no need to totally rewrite and relocate applications for PCs and client/server systems. Installation, training and maintenance costs for NCs are a fraction of the costs associated with PCs.

Businesses start to deploy NCs in branch offices for decision-support and light data-entry applications. Government agencies begin pilot programmes to deploy NCs as low-cost information kiosks.

Second wave (late 1997): Internet and intranet systems with NCs are deployed for data entry, order entry and reservation functions. NCs become widely used in elementary and high schools. Nonprofit organisations just say "no" to continuous PC upgrade costs and jump on the NC bandwagon. NCs -- now equipped with locally stored Java-based word processors, spreadsheets and personal information managers -- replace laptop PCs. NCs are hot Christmas gifts.

NCs go mainstream (early 1998): NCs begin to penetrate PC strongholds. Organisations install word processors and spreadsheets on Java LAN servers. Rather than migrate to the new Windows operating system, organisations replace PCs with NCs. IS shops find centrally deployed Java applications much easier to deploy and maintain.

Next, PC-based client/server applications are replaced by intranet/NC applications. Major vendors announce intranet/NC-enabled versions of their payroll, accounting and manufacturing software.

NCs everywhere (late 1988): NC kiosks are available in real estate offices, automobile dealerships, shopping malls and airports. Specialised telephone NCs break through price barriers. Cellular NCs are the rage. Microsoft announces the PC is dead and rushes out its own NC renamed the MC (Microsoft Computer). Larry Ellison is named Soothsayer of the Decade.

Three years might seem to be a very aggressive schedule. But who would have guessed even a year ago that intranets would be so widely embraced in such a short time? NCs aren't for everyone. They are for information consumers. PCs are for information producers. But the former far outnumber the latter.

(Richard Finkelstein is president of Links Technology, a consultancy in Chicago. His Internet address is finkel@links.com. A white paper on this topic is available at http://www.links.com.)

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