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Look Junior! A "Network Computer!"
Dec 18, 1995 :: Michael Sippey

As I write this it's the first night of Hanukkah, and only seven shopping days left until Christmas. I spent two of the past three days in downtown San Francisco, living the season, going with the flow of the crowds, and contributing to the retail economy.

I spent a good deal of time in a couple of software stores, picking out gifts for my newly-wired parents. The crowds there were asking the usual questions (just more of them). "Do you have Myst?" or "Where are the Carmen Sandiego discs?" or "This year, we're gonna get our act together. Where's Quicken?" or (the mother of all questions) "Should we buy Windows 95?"

Next year's holiday landscape could be completely different, if Larry Ellison or Lou Gerstner have their way. The big guns from Oracle and IBM are hoping that their "Network Computer" ideas will take the world by storm, and that we'll all find $500 diskless terminals under our trees next year.

If all goes according to plan, we'll unwrap the gifts, recycle the box and the wrapping paper, plug 'em in, hook 'em up to the phone line, and BOOM! Look junior -- we're surfing the Web, just like on TV! We're sending email to your Aunt June! We're playing tic-tac-toe against the computer!! It'll all be great, until....

"Hey, Dad! Billy across the street got Rebel Assault IV on CD-ROM! Can we play that on our NC?"
"Ah, no."

"Hey, Mom! Let's download some shareware and give it a whirl!"
"Sorry, hunny. Can't do that. Our NC doesn't have a hard drive."

"Hey, Aunt Jill. Is there anything else on the Web besides shopping and recycled magazine articles?"
"Ah, not really."

A network computer would make sense, if the content that would feed it were more compelling. I'm not sure if reading Pathfinder on the TV screen or playing games written in Java are enough to make a $500 investment in what is essentially a dumb terminal. Not to mention the fact that the bandwidth needed to make these things really hum (like ISDN or cable modems) are a long way away for the majority of American households.

But beyond these mundane issues, which I'm sure Larry and Lou have answers for, I have a fundamental problem with the NC. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the "Three C's of Computing" -- Creating, Consuming and Connecting. The problem with the NC is that it will be very good at only one of those C's. Without any real processing or storage, our kids aren't going to be creating much. And with a TV display, we're sure not going to be connecting with anyone (since long bouts of email or usenet will make everyone cross-eyed). Which only leaves one thing -- consuming.

The NC will be just another television, dressed up in the web's clothing. The NC will help us consume, just like TV. But instead of consuming episodes of Seinfeld (like we do with TV), we'll consume web sites with pictures of the cast of Seinfeld. Recycled magazine articles about the producers of Seinfeld. And we'll be able to shop (on-line!) for Seinfeld sweatshirts.

The Network Computer won't bring us any closer to the utopian hive-mind society described by Howard Rheingold or Kevin Kelly. In that world, we'd all have equal power to create, connect AND consume. Everyone would have the bandwidth, storage and processing power to create and host our own personal Pathfinder. Instead, we'll all be sitting on our asses, consuming whatever Time Warner throws our way.

In honor of Scott McNealy (yet another NC proponent), I'd like to rewrite Sun's company slogan from "The Network is the Computer" to "The Network is the Consumer."

Happy holidays.



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