It's been several years since Apple Computer used the phrase "the computer for the rest of us" to describe the ease of use of its Macintosh computers. The truth is that any personal computer--whether it's from Apple, Compaq, Gateway 2000 or some other manufacturer--poses challenges to the first-time user.
Personal computers can be difficult to set up, difficult to use and difficult to maintain. If you're really steeped in computer technology, you may not mind figuring out which cable plugs into which port or loading a new software update every two months. However, the rest of the world wants a personal computer that's as easy to operate as a TV set.
One possible solution is the so-called network computer, or NC. In its simplest form, the NC is a terminal without any hard drive, floppy drive or CD-ROM drive. Rather than storing files and programs internally, it gets everything it needs from the network to which it's connected. As I'll explain, this has its advantages and disadvantages.
The idea of NCs started a couple of years ago with a company called Oracle, whose primary business had been developing high-end database software for corporations.
Oracle's goal in pushing the NC initiative was twofold. First, the company wished to create a device that made computing simpler by shifting much of the workload to a central server. Second, Oracle wanted to undermine Microsoft's tight control over the personal computing market. Therefore, it offered in the NC a computing model that didn't require any Microsoft software. Instead of running a mainstream operating system like Windows 95, the programs run by NCs are based entirely on HTML and Java, the dominant programming languages of the Internet.
The NC offers several advantages over a traditional PC. At the consumer level, devices such as WebTV and the RCA Network Computer 1020 are cheaper, at least if one considers only the hardware. For about $250, plus $20 per month for Net access, the RCA unit provides the box, a wireless keyboard and a printer port into which you can plug most current PC printers. You can connect the RCA unit to your TV or, if you already have one, to a standard SVGA monitor. You can be set up and ready to go online in minutes. (It's important to note that after about two years of monthly payments, you've laid out about as much as you would have spent for one of today's new, low-priced home computers.)
The downside for these consumer models is that you can't really do all that much computing. Currently, you're pretty much limited to Web browsing and e-mail. In concept, an NC can run applications like word processing and spreadsheets over the network. However, given the relatively slow rate of data transmission over the Web, downloading software from the network whenever you decide to write a letter is so impractical you might just prefer to pull out pen and paper. Of course, this could change as more homes are wired for high-speed cable-modem and DSL service.
It's a different story for schools that already have classrooms wired with a high-speed network. In this sort of environment, you can load programs over the network almost as quickly as loading them from your own hard drive. And the benefits are substantial.
Because an NC costs considerably less than a PC, schools can equip more desks with computers for the same amount of money. Plus there's virtually no maintenance associated with an NC. As long as the person responsible for the server keeps the software updated, you know you're always using the latest version every time you turn on your NC; you'd never have to load a software update again. With no hard drive to crash on your end and daily backups being taken at the server end, your data is actually much more secure than in a traditional PC environment.
One other disadvantage to network computers is that if the server goes down, every NC connected to that server goes down too. Of course, given that servers are designed to be much more durable than desktop PCs and are usually maintained by professionals, chances are that you would experience less overall down time on an NC than on a stand-alone PC. And as technology continues to advance, these servers will only become more reliable.
To promote the implementation of network computers in educational settings, Oracle has pledged $100 million to the Oracle Promise Foundation. The purpose of this fund is to provide financial assistance to schools that might otherwise be unable to afford even the low-cost NCs. You can find out more about the Oracle Promise Foundation at Oracle's NC Web site, located at http://nc.oracle.com
Network computers clearly aren't for everyone. Quite frankly, I doubt that my primary computing device will ever be an NC. Some situations just demand the full power of a PC. However, for homes that can't afford a $1,000-plus PC in the near future and for schools whose goal is put computers in front of as many students as possible, I see the network computer as an important tool.
Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her national talk radio program can be heard on Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. on 97.1 KLSX-FM.