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The NC v. PC Debate Escalates
Oct 21, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

The Mac vs. PC argument all but fizzled after the introduction of Windows 95 last year, despite the best efforts of one of the players. But we all knew the industry couldn't last long without another evangelical debate to take it's place. And pundits large and small are thanking their lucky stars for something else to write about.

Sure, I've already ranted on the subject. But given the high profile introductions of two new products, it's time to revisit the "Networked Computer" vs. "Personal Computer" debate.

The first lightweight web terminal for consumers is getting its requisite fifteen minutes of fame. If you were anywhere near downtown San Francisco this past week, you probably didn't miss the enormous WebTV logo plastered on the side of an office building. Not to mention the television, radio and print spots that accompanied the launch.

I happened to be in a local electronics store on Wednesday, and played with one of the $325 machines for a good 30 minutes before I started to get strange looks from the people bearing name tags. The game-machine sized box was connected to the local WebTV POP through a regular phone line, and hooked up to a pretty nice-sized television. Using the nifty remote control, I took a thumb-click tour of some of the sites I visit on a regular basis, just to compare the web at 800x600 with the web at 35" across. Some key notes: the resolution on a television monitor is piss poor, so to compensate they blow up text to ridiculous proportions. Meanwhile, images are not scaled up, which means that advertisers are going to have to think about WebTV friendly banners if these machines really take off. The speed is reasonable at 28.8, and the actual browser software is blissfully unobtrusive since buttons on the remote control take the place of the standard Navigator or IE toolbar. But the machine is missing two key features: RealAudio and QuickTime. Hello, this is a television, folks. You know, sound? Moving pictures? WebTV should have recognized that the idiot box is nearly every household's primary multimedia device, and that the web (with poor graphics and extra-large text) will seem awful dry compared to a Thursday night with NBC.

But while sales reps at electronics stores around the country were giving demos of WebTV, the white-knight of the Internet we know and love rode into town promising to save us from the "World Wide Wait." And they had a catchy product name to boot. Marimba's Castanet.

Castanet provides a mechanism for users to store Java applications on their hard drives, and for publishers to automatically, and incrementally, update those applications over the net. Want to participate in Hotwired's newly launched Java-based, but don't feel like downloading the application every time you visit? Download the Castanet "tuner" instead, which will enable you to store's chat app locally, and have it transparently updated whenever those wily programmers at Hotwired make a change to the code. Which seems to be about every day.

Press-release journalism has been in full swing, with everyone and their brother tripping over one another to praise the first company to be born from the mythical Java Fund. No one seemed to care that for consumers it means turning over control of part of your hard drive to the publisher. No one seemed to notice that for small web publishers, the $15,000 price tag is a bit steep, and that their lowly non-cached Java apps will presumably be left in the dust. And no one seemed to comment that what Castanet does is something that your PC's operating system should be doing in the first place. Hmmm...maybe that's why Marimba has applied for a patent on their core technology...

All that aside, what's interesting to me is that in a two week span we had the introduction of two fundamentally different products that speak volumes about the coming war over the nature of networked computing. WebTV is all about "thin clients," the dumb terminal route, with no storage and very little processing power on the user's end. Castanet, on the other hand, necessitates both processing power and storage on the client side. In order to store all those nifty Java apps, you're gonna need a hard drive, right?

This is just the beginning of the struggle for balance between what constitutes a client and what constitutes a server. I imagine that over the long haul either there will be a healthy equilibrium, or users will just segment themselves into those who need a powerful local machine, and those who can rely on a thin client.

In the meantime companies are lining up for a noisy ideological war over the proper paradigm for using the net. Marimba has clearly lined up with Bill, whose Redmond campus dwellers just keep making our clients fatter and fatter. Meanwhile, WebTV has lined up with Larry, who is out to put all of our clients on crash diets, and instead fatten up the servers with a particular brand of relational database.

Unfortunately I get the sneaking suspicion that when fortunes and egos are at stake like this, the lowly user gets left out in the cold. Some of us aren't interested in having our paradigm shifted. Some of us just want a browser that doesn't crash...



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