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The so-called network computer started life as a way of giving every US school child a cheap computer, but it soon left those humble origins behind to become the most hyped, if most vaporous, computer product of 1996. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is whether it should figure in your IS buying plans.

When he originally broached it in September 1995, Oracle's Larry Ellison was proposing a $500 product that would be easy to use, would plug into the Internet, and could be afforded by schools. But Ellison and other vendors like Sun and IBM soon saw that the network computer might offer a way of subverting Microsoft's desktop hegemony, and they devised more ambitious plans for it.

There was plenty of marketing ammunition to hand. The general hysteria surrounding the Internet helped sell the concept. But the most persuasive arguments were the well publicised drawbacks of traditional PCs - high support costs in the corporate environment; desktop applications that are bloated with features hardly anyone ever uses; and, the recurring agony of upgrades.

Understand that the definition of a network computer varies depending on whom you speak to, and there are several varieties being promoted by vendors.

The network computers promised by Sun, Oracle and IBM are diskless computers which require Java-based applets to complete tasks on the client. Users of these rely on the network being up, and mostly can not run existing Windows-based software. According to Gartner Group, these computers could provide a 41 per cent saving over an environment of standard PCs running Windows 95, since they enjoy lower maintenance, upgrade and training costs.

Microsoft and Intel conceived a hybrid network computer/PC device called the NetPC as a rejoinder to the above model. It posits a large hard drive for loading applications, documents and shared files from file servers, but no expansion bays, floppy or CD-ROM drives. This could be 25 per cent cheaper than current setups, according to Gartner's latest report. In March, Microsoft and Intel will detail some of the bundled management services planned for the NetPC.

Finally there are other server-based network computers, which Gartner says could offer savings of up to 33 per cent. They are intelligent display devices that access and execute applications on a server, and they are widely available from suppliers like Wyse and Citrix. This type of set-up supports only limited numbers of users, and it too must rely on the network being up all the time for them to do their work.

So far, network computers of the first two categories are few and far between, with the exception of IBM, which showed the first members of its NC line at Lotusphere '97 last month, running Lotus applications, such as cc:Mail, that had been rewritten in Java. The first of IBM's Network Station line is scheduled to ship in volume in March.

A large-scale move to network computers, when they do arrive, is not without its challenges. Foremost is the need for much more bandwidth to handle the extra network traffic, and bigger servers or server clusters. You'll also confront political fights with influential users who don't want to lose functionality and the control of their desktops. You'll still have to cater to mobile users whose notebooks don't fit the network computer paradigm. And you'll need to buy and run new software, and perhaps find some Java programmers.

On the other hand, if you wish to avoid the arrows in the back which so often afflict pioneers, then you can do as Gartner suggests, and cut your costs by at least 25 per cent right now by standardising software and hardware, by centralising software distribution and management - in other words, by just doing a better job of managing the PC infrastructure you already have.

(Steve Ireland is the Associate Publisher of ComputerWorld)

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