There?s one thing you can say about Microsoft: when things are looking bleak, it doesn?t roll over and play dead. Right now it?s involved in a battle royal ? in the immortal words of desktop product manager Andrew Lees, ?a Darwinian tussle? between the PC and the network computer (NC) for the very soul of the computing industry ? and it?s not in the mood for throwing in the towel.
At the Windows 97 show at Olympia, Microsoft exposed itself on a new front with the launch of the less-than-overwhelming Windows CE operating system for handhelds, while sustaining elsewhere a fair amount of incoming flack on existing fronts ? such as Novell?s attack on its NT server platform. But the company also went on the attack itself ? taking the network computing bull by the horns and wrestling with it.
In much the same way that it has started to systematically dismantle Netscape?s dominance of the internet, Microsoft is seeking to take the sting out of the NC assault on the PC market by ?embracing and extending? the concept. Those who can quickly adapt to changing circums- tances are, after all, the ones who survive in the Darwinian swamplands.
?There are a lot of good ideas with the NC,? Lees admitted brightly at the show?s opening. ?But there are also worries. We disagree with the fragmented architecture that is being promoted. We think that will be a retro step for computing.? The company warns (or possibly prays) that the NC vendors could end up in incompatible disarray, causing some costly headaches for all those who have fallen for their NC hype (see box).
Microsoft says its alternative strategy is to ?embrace the best of what the NC promises ? reduced complexity and cost, the Java programming language, and three-tier network architectures ? and marry that with the best of the PC: applications and hardware compatibility, a choice of hardware and software, and the rich user experience of PC applications.?
The company has already outlined several proposals, such as the Net PC reference platform and the Zero Administration initiative for Windows, that are designed to convince existing PC users that their platform can be slimmed down to accommodate NC virtues, without introducing a costly and incompatible new architecture.
Evolution and the survival of the fittest is clearly something Microsoft is thinking a lot about, if Lees? language is anything to go by. ?It really is the amazing morphing PC,? he says. ?The PC platform is evolving in such a way that it can provide the scalability to fulfil all computing needs ? everything from handhelds to enterprise computing environments.?
But while Microsoft may have the desire to make the PC all things to all men, it?s still far from providing stable platforms that deliver on those promises. At the show, the slightly premature announcement of Windows CE and the hushed silence on Windows NT 5 suggested that things were still a long way off.
The Windows CE announcement, in particular, seemed premature. Anne Mitchard, Microsoft marketing manager for the desktop division, said at the show: ?The very earliest we could expect products is May/ June.? This may be highly optimistic ? other indications suggest that most of the chief suppliers currently developing the $499 HPC devices using Windows CE will make availability announcements at November?s Comdex show in Las Vegas.That leaves plenty of scope for product shipments being put off until well into next year.
Mitchard was more concerned about getting her message across to existing Windows developers, who she assured would find rich pickings in developing for the new environment. ?It uses the Win 32 API set, which means it?s a familiar environment for our existing developers and should lead to cross-pollination,? she said.
?Our goal was to create a new environment for fifth generational computing that will allow third parties ? hardware and software vendors alike ? to produce viable, consumer-desirable products.?
These days Microsoft is throwing all it has got ? new platforms such as CE and bargain basement language suites like Visual Studio 97 ? at its developers in the desperate hope that it can keep their minds off the NC. Yet while Microsoft is morphing itself into a company with an elastic multi-headedplatform, its NC competitors are letting it be known that the NC isn?t designed to eliminate the PC, but to go after fresh new marketing opportunities.
IBM, for instance, is managing to have its cake and eat it by reassuring its customers that the NC won?t replace the PC ? a message which protects existing PC sales while preparing the market (and the dealer channel) for the new opportunities in the NC arena. Its Network Station will replace dumb terminals and take computing to more workers within large organisations and in the home (see box).
?The NC has been positioned as an out-and-out rival to PCs,? says David McAughtry, general manager of IBM?s network computing division. ?But we see it more as being complementary to the PC. Many workers will go on using the PC, but we see the NC being used by production workers, particularly in the transaction area, who have been using terminals or PCs.
?It?s more than a simple replacement for the dumb terminal, because it will push wider usage into other areas. There will be the core transaction areas like retail, airline reservations and banking terminals, but also intranet access across corporates, and workgroup possibilities using groupware like Lotus Notes and Domino.?
McAughtry says that network computing is taking the computing world into a three-tier model based on distributed objects that is distinct from where the PC had previously been heading. Data is stored securely and centrally on a big server, while small clients display that data to users.
The third tier is the middle tier ? the middleware layer as it?s been dubbed ? that he describes as ?the business logic rules?. This three-tier model makes it easier to change the rules used on the data while preserving the integrity of the other two layers.
Although Microsoft claims to have embraced the three-tier concept in its Net PC model, IBM is clearly pointing to the possibility that the PC and NC models are structurally incompatible.
The war of the white papers is likely to rage for most of this year, or at least until real Net PCs and NCs are available for the channel to assess just how they measure up against one another.
Network Computing: A recipe for incompatibility?
Microsoft is letting it be known that the network computing model being proposed by the likes of Sun, IBM and Oracle?s subsidiary NCI ? a group of players that it sneeringly refers to as the minicomputer vendors ? will deliver few of the benefits that it?s hyped up to do. Microsoft argues that it will introduce costly incompatibilities and reduce flexibility and choice, in a rerun of the Unix scenario previously developed (deliberately or inadvertently) by minicomputer vendors.
Microsoft says: ?The Network Computing Reference Profile [outlined by NCI last year] allows vendors to ship with a proprietary bus, peripherals, and CPU architectures, which means that not only is the NC incompatible with the PC today, but the different NC implementations are bound to be incompatible with each other.?
Microsoft queries the assumption that shifting computing power to the server automatically means lower costs: ?Without unlimited bandwidth, high-powered servers, and staff to service them, the architecture will introduce more problems than it solves ? slower response time and poor scalability, for instance.?
Furthermore, nobody should forget the peak demand that the National Grid must satisfy as the nation?s kettles are boiled after Eastenders. Think about similar demands as staff come back from lunch at 2pm and all check out their email simultaneously.
The Network Computing Inc (NCI) Reference Profile has several serious omissions, claims Microsoft, including:
- Extensibility: No bus architecture is specified, neither is any extensibility mechanism.
- Security: There is no requirement, or standard protocol, for authenticating individual NCs on the network.
- Printing: Hard copy doesn?t seem to be a priority in the NC world.
- Operating System: None is specified.
This means chaos for systems integrators, warns Microsoft. ?NCs from different vendors will likely not be compatible. There will be a proliferation of hardware, CPUs and operating systems as manufacturers add new features in order to gain competitive advantage.?
The company predicts (or possibly is hoping) that the NC market will remain fragmented for many years to come.
What this means is that customers who purchase NCs from multiple vendors will incur the expense of supporting multiple hardware, and OS implementations. And, says Microsoft, that means far more cost, not the less-cost rosy picture that the NC vendors are currently painting.
IBM: The Network Station is an alternative
IBM sees its version of the NC, called the Network Station, as an additional option to the two choices currently available on the desktop: the non- programmable terminal (NPT) connected to a multiuser computer and the PC. The Network Station will combine the ease-of-use and the low-cost of the NPT with leading-edge Java-based applications to give greater flexibility.
The millions of NPTs now in use ? ASCII, 5250, 3270 and X-Terminals ? are mostly suited to data entry and other basic tasks. These dumb terminals are easier to install, use and manage than PCs, and are more cost-effective. But they lack the flexibility, graphical interface and application richness of the PC.
Enter the Network Station, which will have a colour graphical interface, full internet and intranet access, and will use thin applications written in Java. These will be stored on an associated server, such as an IBM AS/400, RS/6000, System/390, PC server or a compatible non-IBM system. IBM is taking the most useful features of the 25-year-old NPT and adding much of what makes today?s PCs appealing.
Spec-wise, the Network Station will be Power PC-based; have 8Mb of memory (expandable to 64); network adaptor cards (initially for Ethernet and Token Ring, later for twinax and coax connectivity); serial and parallel ports; and support for an industry-standard VGA/SVGA colour monitor. It will also include a PC-style keyboard and mouse.
This hardware will support a small piece of system code, on top of which will run the terminal support software (5250 for AS/400 servers, X-Windows for RS/6000 and Unix servers, 3270 for S/390 servers), a Web browser and a Java virtual machine.
When turned on, the Network Station will perform some self-tests and then contact a designated server ? an AS/400, a PC Server running OS/2 Warp Server or Windows NT, an RS/6000, or a S/390 running MVS or OS/390. It then requests that the system code be downloaded and displays a log-on screen.
After the server has verified the user?s ID and password, it sends back a set of user preferences and, based on these preferences, proceeds to selectively download and initiate the various software environments (5250, 3270 or X Terminal), the Web browser, and the Java virtual machine and Java applications or applets. In this way, the network computer has been personalised to the user?s preferences for applications, desktop look and feel and server connections. It?s ready to use AIX, AS/400 MVS, OS/390, OS/2 Warp Server, Unix, VM or Windows NT applications ? or to surf the Net or run a Java program.
The Network Station will be available by Q4, and a full implementation with a colour screen is expected to be priced at about $1,000, or $700 without monitor.
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