Network Computer (NC) (see prototype of NC at right) is the latest product from Oracle, which will allow access to the Web using Oracle's new Universal Server technology. It is basically a "dumb terminal"-software and contents are either stored in ROM on the NC or downloaded from the network on an as-needed basis.
It uses a lot of ROM -at least 4Mb- and doesn't even need a monitor -you'd just plug it into your TV. The price tag is said to be about US$500, for a device that lacks certain elements of a real PC, such as disk or CD-ROM drives.
This article brings into focus the tradeoffs it embodies. What else, in addition to disk drives and compatibility with mainstream software, is being left out in order to make the machine a lot less expensive than a PC?..As NCs haven't come to market yet, we can only speculate....
Oracle Universal Server
Oracle Universal Server is the industry's first all-purpose server and Web-enabled database. It is the combination of Oracle 7, the industry's fastest client/server relational database with complete Web, text management, messaging and multimedia information servers which allows simultaneous users to access and manage any information for any application over any network. It is designed to handle the needs of network-centric computing, on-line transaction processing (OLTP), on-line analytical processing (OLAP) and data warehousing applications.
Other components of Oracle Universal Server include Oracle 7 Advanced Networking option, Oracle Mesaaging option and Oracle Video option.
Java-based Web Browser
The take up of NCs will be hampered by a lack of software. Existing PC applications will have to be written in small chunks or "applets" in new languages such as Sun's Java.
Java is the infamous technology from Sun Microsystems. It is a simple, object-oriented, platform-independent, dynamic general-purpose programming environment. It's best for creating "applets"- small applications that can travel freely around the Net between clients and servers- and applications for the Internet, intranets and any other complex, distributed network.
Today's Java-enabled browsers include Netscape Navigator 2.0, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Spyglass Mosaic, Sun Microsystems HotJava, Oracle PowerBrowser and IBM WebExplorer.
A big advantage that network-centric Java have over desktop-centric applications is that they don't have to be pre-installed -they install themselves just in time, on the fly, and deinstall themselves when they're no longer needed. Hence, the concept of upgrading application software is eliminated.
Another key advantage is that the user interface can be decoupled from the functionality of the applications (i.e. objects). For example, HTML code can be used as a front end to the Java applets. This gives the developer complete control over which applets are included on an HTML page and how this functionality is presented to the user.
What about downloading?.....It's terrible when you've waited for ages for a download from a Web page and it stops just before it's completed. This often happens with Netscape and other browsers typically caused by windows crash or disconnection from server. Up to now, there isn't anything that can resume an interrupted download.
This is a disastrous situation if it happens when we're using NCs. It does not only waste time, but money as well. How can NC tackle this problem?...One suggestion is by having a file transfer protocol similar to ZMODEM Crash Recovery technology. However, this technology have a setback. Successful crash recovery requires that the receiver's copy of the file match the sender's copy up to the point where the transfer was cut off. If your transfer is cut off and you dial right back in, you can be fairly confident the sender's copy of the file hasn't changed. If you don't call back right away the file may have changed. Another solution is by using a small operating system, which will crash less frequently.
Another situation which could be a nightmare is when the network or server goes down. You can't work on your NC as you have to download the operating system and applications form the server. This system requires efficient backup and recovery. It would force any company which is considering of using NCs to think twice before actually buying them.
The browser software will be stored in read-only memory (ROM), since there won't be a disk drive. This is a serious tradeoff, because ROM-based software cannot be updated. It all but guarantees NC's early obsolescence, because browser software is evolving rapidly.
Users of sofware applications have never been satisfied for long with static features or functionality. The consumer's appetite for constantly improving performance is what has made the PC industry so vibrant and innovative -and what makes it so hard for computer companies to find buyers for last year's models, even at great prices.
Running applications out of ROM might seem a silly thing to do but, after all, this is a Network Computer, and fixes and patches can be downloaded from the network. Intel-based units will also appear, and Sun undoubtedly has plans for a Sparc-based device.
Using TV screens?..
Can a TV adequately display Web fonts and graphics?....Under normal cases, television screens don't display text well. But Acorn claims that the company has been cajoling tv displays into looking like computer monitors for years, using Acorn Risc Tecnology (ART). ARTs provide a developement for building TV based products around the ARM 7500 processor which is used in NC. This is based around the ART 7500 developement systems and a separate encoder extension which enables it to drive either NTSC (National Television System Committee) or PAL (Phase Alternating Line) standard televisions. It uses anti-aliased fonts for high definition text and anti-twitter software for stable text on interlaced displays.
Nobody publishes information on the Internet for display on tv screens yet, although that will change.
This vision assumes a greater bandwidth than is generally available today. Sun and Oracle used to promote diskless "dumb terminals" for corporate local-area network (LANs). We can make a case for the practicality of terminals that are connected to broadband networks. That's because local drives are less important when large amount of data can be downloaded rapidly.
The machines may find a place in the corporate marketplace, where Intranets are becoming vital and broadband networks are fairly common. They will find less acceptance in homes, where narrowband and midband connections to the Internet will be the rule for several years. Midbands connections, provided via the likes of ISDN and cable modems, will be fast enough to please people who use PCs but not necessarily people who use NCs.
Phone companies will have to deploy various high-speed data conduits to facilitate this type of computing. The NC would be expected to support high-speed modem, Ethernet, ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), high-speed E1 (2.048 Mbps) and T1 (1.54 Mbps) telephone lines and ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Networks).
SmartCard...Is It Truly Safe?
The NC employs a "smart card" interface to identify and authorize the user on the NC. The smart card is the same type currently being advertised and used for "digital cash" and looks exactly like today's credit or ATM card. The smart card will have a Personal Identification Number (PIN), like an ATM card, to protect against theft or unauthorized use. Entering a wrong PIN a certain number of times in a row causes the data in the smart card to be erased.
The information stored on the smart card's chip will include the username and password of the NC user, as well as information about the service used by that card holder :
name of an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like CompuServe , UK Online and the local phone number used to access that ISP or
name and IP (Internet Protocol) address of the server where the user's file are stored
An encryption key unique to the card holder is stored on each card to provide secure access to data and files on the network. Data can be written to and updated on the card, hence it can store information about what that user was doing doing the last time an NC was used, and return the user to that same place next time he plugs it into an NC. Strict interfaces ensure that any attempt to break these rules results in the card erasing itself.
The smart card seems to be highly secured and virtually impossible to steal especially because they are PIN activated, but would that stop a password hacker from trying to crack the code or steal the smart card?.. A user's information will always be in jeopardy of being exposed to any other users in the network.
NC's closest competitor is Microsoft's Simply Interactive Personal Computer (SIPC). SIPC is a concept for living-room computer which would plug into your TV, link up to the Internet and also control your hi-fi and video player. Though none of this is really new in principle, SIPC is significant because it's backed up by Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Sony and Toshiba.
Sun, Oracle, IBM, Netscape, Apple and a variety of other companies have high hopes for NCs. One of their main arguments is that the networked nature of the NCs will simplify tasks such as upgrading software.
But these ease-of -use advantages can accrue to any connected computer. People and companies alike will reap these benefits from Internet -but not because their computers no longer have adequate memory or can't run all of today's applications.
Will NC survive?....Will it stand a chance against the PC?...We'll never know until it's actually out in the market.