It started as a tenuous concept at best. The notion of a $500 PC with no local storage was one most pundits scoffed at, labelling it impractical and of little benefit to the power-hungry desktop environment. Two years later, network computing has become one of the hottest topics since the Internet.
What's more, it is almost here. The problem is that no one can really say what network computing is.
As a loose definition, network computing refers to any computing model where the primary resources accessed do not reside at the client end, but are located at remote locations. Accessing a web page is a form of network computing - albeit one of limited interaction.
The real opportunities in network computing will come with the expected release of Java-based applications and tools this year. If the promises are true, then users will be able to download their application from the network to machines (NCs) with no local storage, with their own work stored remotely on a network device.
The predicted benefits are many. Users will be able to log in to their network from anywhere in the world and access the resources they always use. Information delivery will boom as companies move to take advantage of new ways of reaching customers. Intranets will be able to deliver the full power of productivity applications to clients with no local storage, allowing instant updates to applications.
It is this last point that is generating much interest. The notion of a thin client computer is one of a device that is both cheap to buy and cheap to support. The Gartner Group is quoting figures of around $9000 per annum as the standard cost of supporting a PC in a corporate environment, compared to $3000 per annum for a thin client device.
These savings come through the ability to centrally manage and update clients, increased security and lower acquisition costs.
Unfortunately, the options are becoming clouded. While Oracle, IBM, Sun and others began promoting their hardware and software agnostic NC visions, chief rivals Intel and Microsoft have banded together to develop a specification for the Net PC, a thin client device still reliant on Intel CPUs and Windows OS.
While that battle is just starting to hot up, already a number of user's sites, such as the Department of Administrative Services, Repco and Big W are at least considering the devices. And Oracle claims to have identified a further five or 10 users who will fall into the early adopter category.
And practising what it preaches, Oracle is using NCs in its Sydney office, and is even equipping its receptionist with one. According to Oracle's director of new business, Len Augustine, this is a perfect environment to test out the suitability of a thin client, in a situation where full computing power is unneeded.
Spreading the word
Augustine says Oracle is also looking to prepare its channel thoroughly. As the company is not a hardware vendor, it must establish relationships with the device builders to maintain its stake in the argument. Augustine says still more important is having a reseller base able to tailor their applications to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
"Oracle is now starting to gear up all our software developers," said Augustine. "We've been preaching Internet HTML/Java applications now for over a year and a half. If you look at the developer community, that's all we want them to do - use the latest releases of our product and development tools, and instead of generating Visual Basic or Oracle Form, actually generate HTML or Java."
Two of the NC suppliers that Oracle is working with are Acorn, represented through ACA Technology in Perth, and IDEA, represented through IDE Technology in Sydney.
The IDEA Internet Client Station is primarily a client for network and Internet browsing and Java-applet execution for business users; the Acorn range is made up of a number of different devices for both local and remote access. "The modem version at the moment is generating a lot of interest, where we see big potential for that in the home market," says ACA managing director Peter Klemm. "You can plug it into your TV and browse the net while you're watching your TV."
Klemm says most of the resellers approaching his company are familiar with the concepts of network computing. "Some of them are saying they can see potential market for this - they think they can develop some solution based around this sort of product." He says one of the great advantages of these solutions is they can be a turn-key - you just turn them on and they work.
ACA will start seriously promoting the Acorn NCs by the end of February, when they will be available in volume, said Klemm. "We haven't done a lot yet because we didn't want to pre-empt the market too much and advertise a product that we can't supply."
The integrated approach
While many vendors are relying on partnerships to bring network computing solutions together, IBM believes it has a strength in being the one vendor capable of doing everything itself.
According to its general manager for software and networking, Mark Latchford, IBM is able to bring together a number of elements into one strategy, including servers, PCs, software, networking and services. "We take a combination of these to the market, grouped together or as individual elements within network computing solutions depending on the customers."
Latchford says resellers are crucial to the delivery of these offerings. "We want to somehow make sure that today's business partners and also tomorrow's business partners have access to the appropriate elements of those offerings. The priority is to work with each of them and let us define their role or their interests. If it's hardware reselling we'll make sure you can represent our product as a server platform. If you're interested in software selling, we've got a portfolio that's second to none, and we will make sure you can build applications that are Internet enabled, or oriented towards electronic commerce.
In order to educate its channel, IBM is currently bringing together large numbers of disparate resellers from across the company for kick-off events, and will hold a joint Lotus/IBM business partner conference in mid-March. "And that's going to be a showcase for current business partners," said Latchford. "It's totally focused on network computer offerings and how our technology can allow business partners to add their own applications."
One company looking to both support and profit from IBM's efforts is Melbourne-based distributor ITG Computers. As the only distributor carrying the entire IBM range, national sales manager Braham Shnider says his company sees tremendous opportunity. "Because we distribute for a number of parts of IBM, all the NC does is really bring the whole thing together."
While many believe NCs will eat into the sales of traditional PCs, Shnider believes what the NC offers is an expanded market overall. "The NC will compete today in part directly with the PC, but there will always be a market for a PC, because your price point in theory is driven down and your security is driven up."
Shnider believes NCs represent a greater opportunity for resellers. "Some will prosper and some won't. You either embrace it now or you wait for it, but if you wait you're going to miss out."
While many of the potential solutions lend themselves to larger integrators, Latchford says there is plenty of scope for smaller organisations to combine their offerings into larger solutions. "If a small organisation would like to get some of the larger projects, we would try to link the core competencies together into a total group."
The key issue for many resellers, however, will be where money can be made, said Latchford. "I think there's a recognition that early presence in a customer leads to a longer term relationship, therefore a more profitable relationship, and I think they are saying if we can get our software in there and add a service envelope around that, that is where the money is going to be made."
Latchford says this isn't the only issue - with end-users able to buy software electronically from vendors, resellers may very well miss out. "This comes back to making sure that they have an offering to the market that is above and beyond what a vendor can provide."
Even so, he says IBM is taking the step of protecting its resellers from this eventuality. "Our intent is not to be a distributor of our product - we are a developer, and we provide core services. Our distribution model remains the same, and if that means that we will be doing electronic distribution of software, we will do that via a channel. And already we are looking at having our channel electronically distribute our software and receive commission."
So what is a network computer?
While both Intel/Microsoft and IBM/Sun/ Oracle/Netscape represent two conflicting views on what an NC is, there are some common denominators. The most likely scenario is that local storage will be restricted to a few megabytes of RAM; there will be some sort of input via keyboard; a touch screen or mouse will be present; and there will be a display screen. IBM's Network Station and Sun's Java Station are examples of the second class of device, but as the network computer is based around an open framework, the possibilities are endless.
One such possibility is the WinCenter solution from NCD. Based on a similar product from Citrix, WinCenter can host a single application on a central server which can then be accessed by client PCs.
The beauty of the system is that all processing is done on the server, allowing the PCs to be anything from 286s to proper NCs, and yet still run today's high power applications.
Canberra-based Select Computer Technology is currently distributing and selling the NCD product, and has already had success in the Australian market with sites such as the Department of Administrative Services.
Managing director Costa Kapantais says the beauty of WinCenter is that you don't need to throw out your existing infrastructure to install it. "What it allows you to do is display an NT session on a device that's a low cost 286, which you otherwise can't do on a 286, whereas to get the Net PC cost benefits you're going to have to buy new PCs, new servers, and new server operating systems. Basically what you've got now is not going to be worth anything - you're going to have to throw it all out and start again."
While not perhaps an NC solution for purists, Kapantais says WinCenter allows users to make use of their existing investment in a network computing-based environment while moving to new client options.