What do you do if you run a successful $3 billion database company, you're a winning yachtsman and can hob-nob with president Clinton on a personal basis? If you're Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, you put the cat among the PC pigeons, that's what.
Ellison loves an audience, so when he sat in front of 150 journalists at the company's annual user group bash in Amsterdam last week, he had plenty to say about his network computer (NC) wheeze.
Only a couple of hours earlier, Ellison had been the star turn when he demonstrated the NC to around 3,000 Oracle users who had been warmed up by Douglas Hurd and worldwide president of operations Ray Lane.
'This is the 90s and the age of proprietary computing is over,' proclaimed Ellison. 'For the first time with the Internet we have our own low-cost wide area network. The NC is designed to connect to this network like a telephone.
'We have an awful lot of companies supporting the NC. The Boeing Corporation wants to buy 100,000 and Malaysia wants to buy them by the million.' People thought the PC represented the last stage in the evolution of computing but that was wrong.
'An awful lot of people believed the present would go on for ever,' Ellison continued. 'Who knows about the future? Maybe the future is the NC.' But it's unlikely that in September you'll be able to rush out to Dixons and buy one. 'Someone is going to give it to you, just like they give you your cellular phone,' he said.
The family will include a settop box which will sit on top of people's tellies, and the whole range will change the shape of the computer. Another member of the family has a keyboard, a little screen and a telephone handset on its left. The NC will not only bring computing to the masses and Ellison's mother, but it will also change the face of the world. He's quite serious about that.
'We're not trying to become the Microsoft of the NC,' he said. 'If you want to build a PC you have to ask Microsoft for permission. The NC is very different because it is based on open standards.' But that's not the end of it. 'The NC is a multimedia computer,' he said. 'You'll get video on demand and anyone can build NC client or server software.
We're not trying to create a monopoly, we're trying to create competition.' The other members of the family are the basic model (component cost $295) which uses an ordinary TV to display the 330Kb user interface. Ellison said Oracle has developed technology, called anti-twittering, to give flicker-free and reasonably sharp font resolution.
There will be other models which use either flash memory or small hard drives to cache pages. The user interface is the door to Oracle's Interoffice suite of software which includes an embedded Oracle Power Browser, wordprocessor and email facilities.
It's unclear, so far, how important flash memory or a 'small hard drive' will be to the effective working of an NC. But one real innovation is that people's files, like their cash, won't be held at home. They will exist on an Internet provider's server.
This prompted one unfortunate Belgian hack to question what would happen to his precious data if, as in the early days of banking, the Internet provider went bust. 'I would argue that your files are far safer with me than with you,' said Ellison. 'Would you perform an operation on yourself?'
But Ellison reserved his most venomous comments for arch-enemy Microsoft and in particular Nathan Myhrvold, a senior vice president at the company who dismissed the NC concept out of hand when Ellison gave birth to it at a conference in Paris last autumn.
'Microsoft said the idea was dorky, stupid and would only be created over its dead body. It then went on to make other inflammatory statements.' Ellison said announcements Microsoft made last week about its own answer to the NC demonstrated his rival's folly.
'Its NC hasn't a chance,' he said. 'No one wants to buy all their software from Microsoft.' Furthermore, Oracle would roll out a simplified OS which people could run on their PCs too. 'This is not an X-terminal,' he said. 'This is a PC with its storage at the end of a wire.'
Oracle is working on two versions of its operating system, but both are likely to be in the 330Kb range and to be portable and scalable across practically any hardware platform. 'You won't be able to tell the difference between the NC running on Intel or on Arm,' he said.
Microsoft, in contrast, locked people in to its own API, he claimed. 'We support Internet APIs to the Java plug-in standard. We are not the only supplier and we're adhering to industry standards.' Oracle had even managed to convince Intel of the wisdom of the NC. When the firms first talked, Intel CEO Andy Grove had joked about the low-cost device. Referring to the Hobart Yacht race which Ellison won last year, Grove said: 'Are you going to bring out a $500 yacht next?'
Although the identity of the manufacturers which will join the Oracle party still remains unclear, it's highly likely that IBM, at least, will be one of them. Compaq is known to be interested in the concept but will probably adopt a far more cautious attitude.
We're likely to find out in the middle of May by which time, Ellison said, the world will discover that the NC is the shape of things to come.
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