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April 1996 Opinion Columns

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It's B-a-a-a-a-a-c-k! The Network Computer Returns

The prototypes are arriving-and so is a ton of mail on
these controversial little Internet appliances.

By Fred Langa, Editorial Director

My, my, my, the idea of the Network Computer (a.k.a. Internet Computer) really rang your chimes. The mail is still pouring in, making this one of the hottest issues I've ever discussed in this space.

In case you missed the February issue, where we discussed the pros and cons of the Network Computer in detail, here's a 100-word summary:

Some companies (Oracle, Sun and IBM, among others) would love to sell you a $500 single-purpose browser box. This mass-market Internet appliance would connect to a cable or phone line and probably use a TV or an extra-cost monitor as a display. It would have no local storage and little hardware beyond what's needed to suck down and run applets from the Net. These mini-apps would let you surf the Web, read newsgroups, shop, balance your budget, whatever. You'd probably pay for connect time and/or "rent" the online apps as you used them. You'd also likely pay a service provider to store your saved data on its system.

A few early prototype NCs have appeared, but it's still not clear whether this concept will fly-or whether decent boxes really can be built for the magical $500 price point. Either way, some people-not me-still love the idea of NCs. In my February column, I gave 10 reasons why I think these things are destined for the boneyard of really, really dumb ideas.

A very large percentage (better than 95 percent) of those of you who wrote in agreed with me that the impersonal, let-someone-else-control-everything nature of these boxes makes them the very antithesis of what "personal computing" is supposed to be about. One wag (ChWoodward@aol.com) even came up with a new name for these browser machines:

The NyetBox will fail. I don't want to sit down to pay my bills online and wait 10 minutes for an overloaded server to send me my data files and the software I need to open them. My grandmother is faster than my 28.8, and the local cable company tells me it has to upgrade its system before there's a chance I can compute at the speed of light. A Browser Box Service Provider would have you by your data stream, and the monthly charges could easily outpace your telephone, cable and online service bills.

Other readers focused on the lack of data security inherent in these devices when they're connected to public networks, the use of a low-res TV as a display device, and so on.

A handful of letter writers suggested these devices might be okay for schools and libraries, and I guess I can see that-to a point. I have two kids in school, and I'd hate to see them trained to use a dumb terminal instead of a "true" PC.

A few contrarian souls told me my buffers needed flushing and that Network Computers will sell by the millions. We'll see.

And several readers managed to synthesize both camps into a single, brilliant idea, insisting the PC and NC aren't antithetical at all. This e-mail from atomdoc@aol.com illustrates this position pretty well:

A few weeks ago, I bought a used Packard Bell Legend I 286 in brand-new condition, including a 9600bps modem, for $195. Found it in the classified ads. It had a megabyte of RAM, and the guy apologized for it having "only" a 120-meg hard drive. Since it didn't have Windows (sorry!), I got America Online to send me a free copy of its DOS interface. I loaded it up, and 10 minutes later I was surfing. What could be cheaper or easier?

Other writers related similar stories about using cast-off Macs and sidelined 386s as low-cost browser boxes. In each case, the principle remains the same: If you want cheap surfing, it may be less expensive and easier to gussy up older hardware (I've seen remaindered 14.4Kbps modems for $20 in closeout catalogs) than to spring for a new NC.

Despite all this, it still doesn't look as though the browser-box brouhaha will fade away. IBM is said to be busy dusting off some old PC designs, hoping to repackage these clunkers as NCs. That's right, Mr. and Mrs. America and all ships at sea, for today's prices you can buy yesterday's technology-what a deal!

And Oracle recently demoed a couple of reference designs that show where the company's headed. One is a 2-pound, laptop-sized device designed to run Java-Sun's "C++ Lite" language-as its operating system. Almost simultaneously, Oracle announced Personal Oracle Lite, a small-footprint database that can be adapted for use on an NC. Personal Oracle Lite includes a DBMS administration tool and supports SQL, C++ and Open Database Connectivity scripts.

Now remember, part of the original rationale behind the NC was that it could be a commodity consumer device, like the VCR. Millions of computer-shy citizens would buy browser boxes and start surfing, thus bringing mass-market forces into play.

Okay, is it just me or does anyone else have trouble seeing Joe Sixpack popping open a frosty one and settling in for a night's SQL queries over the Internet, a bowl of nachos at one elbow and a copy of The Zen of C Programming at the other? Do we really expect consumers to choose between Siskel & Ebert and Kernighan & Ritchie?


And there are other problems, code bloat being a major one. I checked to see what it would take for Java to duplicate the simple "marquee" scrolling-text function built into Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The answer: about 45 lines of C-like code. With Internet Explorer, you can scroll text using three lines of basic, dead-easy HTML.

So, Java scrolling requires 15 times as many lines as a competing technology and many more bytes to be transmitted, received and then interpreted on the client side. Imagine a Java-based page with lots going on: Just how long will you have to sit there waiting for the thing to download and run?

Yes, Java is wonderfully powerful and lets you do anything you-or your C++ programmers-wish. But it's not going to be a mass-market tool for end users and average mortals without access to ultra-fast connections: No way, no how.

Java boxes are just one symptom. I wish all these companies would stop dabbling in half-baked consumer products and start focusing on real problems that need real solutions. Yes, we need innovation. Yes, we need other vendors to loosen Microsoft's lock on the desktop. Yes, we need more-lots more-real competition in the industry. And yes, we end users need well-thought-out products that serve real needs.

But the browser box doesn't fit that bill-not by a long shot. An idea like this doesn't serve consumer needs, and it surely doesn't deserve the time, talent and resources these industry giants are spending on it. C'mon, guys, you can do better. Don't remove the hard disk from a PC and call it innovation. It's a dumb terminal and a dumb idea. As ChWoodward suggests, just say nyet.

Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here.

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The Explorer

Netscape Threatens Microsoft (And Other Myths)

Get ready for a perilous journey into the
black heart of the microcomputer industry.

By Mike Elgan, Editor

Primitive cultures are universally awash in myths and falsehoods easily disproved through calm observation of the facts. But the myths endure, reinforced by rituals and storytelling as well as innate fear of natural phenomena beyond human control. The most barbaric culture I've ever encountered is far from primitive. Yet not only is it immersed in myth and fantasy, it engages in ritualistic cannibalism, vicious tribal warfare, rape, pillage and plunder.

No doubt you've guessed I'm talking about the microcomputer industry. For bloodcurdling accounts of the rape and plunder, read our Newstrends section each month. Here, I'll provide a brief account of six of the most fantastic myths propagated by members of this savage tribe.

1. Netscape is a threat to Microsoft. Microsoft grows like a weed on steroids, raking in billions on incredibly popular operating systems, applications, utilities, programming tools, content, services, books and peripheral hardware. Netscape makes Web software others give away or build into operating systems and applications. Yet tribespeople cling to the belief that Microsoft is doomed and the future belongs to Netscape. Why? Because the Web is hot. They ignore the reality that the Web is hot because it's mostly free.

2. Java is hot; Win95 is not. A handful of developers have downloaded, and many have even used, Java. The myth is that Win95 and other operating systems will someday be replaced by browsers and Java-based applications stored on the Web that are downloaded when needed.

But I have never seen a Java-based applet that could replace a word processor, spreadsheet or any other software currently on my PC. Meanwhile, Win95 has shipped more than 30 million copies in its first seven months and developers are flooding the market with Win95 products.

I'm not saying Java won't succeed and Windows will forever rule. I'm saying there's no good reason to believe Java-based computing will dethrone Windows.

The myth is based solely on fear and envy of Microsoft.

3. Sluggish Win95 sales are responsible for sluggish app sales. Corel, Symantec and others blame lower-than-expected Win95 sales for sluggish sales of their Win95 products.

It's all based on an irrational belief that anything below our bloated expectations spells failure. Every successful OS spent time establishing itself, selling slowly at first and rising steadily over a period of months or even years. Win95 is doing the same, albeit at record-high levels.

4. There's no money in desktop PCs. PCs are commodities with razor-thin margins-no one can make money selling them, right? Like many myths, this one contains a kernel of truth. People once purchased PCs for price, performance, and perceptions of vendor quality and service. Beyond that, the machines were all the same.

Those days are gone. Desktop PCs are clawing their way out of the commodity racket and evolving into bona fide consumer electronics products. "Designer" PCs with built-in special-purpose features aren't the wave of the future; they're here now.

Once unable to compete in the rock-bottom-price U.S. clone market, Japanese consumer electronics giants like Sony, NEC, Hitachi and Fujitsu are preparing a renewed assault on the market. The result of this new competition will be a rich variety of computers, greater brand loyalty, fewer vendors and higher profits.

This trend toward designer PCs is taking many forms. The first is cosmetic. The Packard Bell Corner Computer, for instance, fits neatly into a corner. The Acer Aspire line comes in cool colors and shapes.

The second form is functional. Designer PCs are shipping with built-in "peripheral" hardware you don't have to install or configure. The Compaq Presario 7232 keyboard doubles as a 400dpi scanner, and the Presario 9240 incorporates a rewriteable PD-CD optical drive. Soon, CD-R devices will come standard on high-end desktops.

We'll soon see systems with video cameras in their monitors, and speakers and microphones tucked into their keyboards.

The big trend in the small-office market is telephony-ready PCs. Micron, for example, is working on PCs built around Microsoft Phone, the all-in-one phone and message center I discussed in my February column. Many of the other major PC vendors will offer similar systems.

And finally, notebooks are being used increasingly as desktops. The line between the two is blurring. In the new designer PC market, portability is increasingly embraced as a viable desktop option. Which brings us to another myth...

5. Notebooks keep getting smaller. Some tribes shrink heads. The microcomputer industry shrinks notebooks-or at least it used to. The shrinking stopped a year ago, but the myth endures.

Three user demands halted the trend toward increasingly diminutive notebooks: full-featured multimedia, full-sized keyboard and screen, and dual functionality for use on the road and in the office.

People who need super portability these days instead buy hot hand-held devices like the HP OmniGo or the Palm Computing Pilot (see Palm Pilot 1000 in the March issue).

6. NT is for the corporate desktop; Win95 is for the home. There's no question that NT is a lousy OS for the home: no games or Plug-and-Play support, poor DOS and Windows 3.0 and 3.1x support, and no free tech support.

But that doesn't mean Win95 is a bad corporate OS. In fact, it's vastly superior to NT for most corporate desktop environments because it's cheaper, offers a lower memory footprint, sports Plug and Play as well as System Policies, and has better legacy hardware and software support.

Yet everywhere you go, you hear the tribal chant, "Win95 requires you to upgrade your hardware." You rarely hear this complaint about NT. The reality is that Win95 runs on almost any system that runs Windows 3.1x. But NT needs hefty hardware and runs on just a tiny fraction of the installed PCs in large corporations.

In a perfect world, NT is a vastly superior OS. In the corporate world, however, Win95 is more adept at dealing with the imperfections of old hardware and software, overworked IS departments and the bottom line.

These are just six of the many myths believed and repeated by microcomputer tribespeople. I'm confident that someday The Tribe will be civilized and integrated into the community of rational peoples. Until then, we can only hope it doesn't destroy itself through its own delusions and ignorance.

Contact Editor Mike Elgan in "The Explorer" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here.

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Windows at Work

Technology to Bring Out The Artist in You

New publishing technologies let the average computer
user create above-average marketing materials.

By: Cheryl Currid

Until now, only big-budget managers could afford the tools and resources required to produce effective business documents, replete with attention-grabbing colors, graphics, pictures and multisized text. But with today's powerful, low-cost, easy-to-use software and hardware, even the smallest businesses can save time and money by producing many of their sales materials in-house. Software with templates, predesigned art and carefully selected colors can help ordinary people produce stunning work.

As professional services become pricier, tools get cheaper. It makes sense to purchase a $6,000 to $8,000 color printer when faced with a $10,000 professional service fee for one brochure. Short-run, short-timetable projects are incredibly expensive. Organizations pay big premiums to designers, artists and printers for quick turnaround. Compare these inflated rates to do-it-yourself costs, and you have a compelling reason to try new equipment. And once businesses take the purchase plunge, their graphics skills will improve.

This doesn't mean you'll see a crooked "out of business" sign on the local print shop or that corporate art departments will be phased out. Their talents and skills will be in demand for years to come. But it does mean business people with short-run jobs can do the work themselves.

To see if any (or all) of this technology is ready for John and Jane Average User, my firm compared new color printers, photo grabbing software, digital cameras and layout software.

Many products passed our evaluations with flying colors. The whole collection of gear worked so well, we labeled it "safe for human consumption."

This technology can save businesses a mint, but saving money isn't the only consideration. Many of the $299 to $499 color printers may be fine for making junior's homework look spiffy, but ink jet output quality at 300 or 600 dots per inch just isn't good enough for business presentations. Current-generation color laser, solid ink or dye sublimation technology is mandatory. Prepare to pay between $6,000 and $8,000 for a hardy, networked color printer.

To avoid sticker shock, consider two points. First, 30 to 50 people can share these workhorse printers. That's $160 to $300 per person-about the price of an office telephone or a standalone, slow, lower-quality ink jet printer.

Second, current-generation technology delivers more for less. Today's press quality costs half as much as the ho-hum quality of a few years back. And new printers now include built-in printer management and administration software that anyone with an IQ above freezing can use. Products like Tektronix's PhaserLink management software should decrease printer support requests. The printer and software drivers alert users to problems and explain, in clear English, how to fix them.

My team was delighted with Tektronix's new Phaser 550, HP's LaserJet 5 and Lexmark's Optra C color laser printers. Tektronix won the race for its ability to rev its engines at 1200dpi and offer excellent color quality. Both color and black-and-white photos, the true test of a printer's resolution, were stunning even when printed on copier paper.

Another honorable mention goes to Fargo's FotoFun digital color photo printer. Just scan in a decent picture and click on the software's Print button. Within a minute you'll see a sharp, print-shop-quality reprint. If your original photo has a few ugly marks, no worries. Fargo supplies excellent retouch software. We experimented with an old tattered picture of me. We changed colors, removed scratches, recombed my hair and even erased Mother Nature's expression lines on my forehead. This low-cost product should find its way into the offices of cosmetic surgeons, dentists, even upscale hairstylists.

Yes, this technology is ready for general office consumption, but I'd like to sound an early warning bell. Test all components together to avoid unexpected glitches, like scanners that create images so poor even the best touch-up software and printer won't help. Also, test your own work, not the perfect samples you get in the package.

And, if you work in the print services industry, either get cracking on some value-added services or create an updated version of resume.doc.

WinMag Analyst Cheryl Currid is president of Houston-based Currid & Co., a research and consulting firm. Contact Cheryl in the "Windows at Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here.

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Dialog Box

Proper Etiquette Is Lost in Cyberspace

Ill-mannered people are running around cyberspace, behaving like swine.

By Miss Manners

E-MAIL BOORS abound. They misrepresent their true identities, press unwelcome intimacy, monopolize conversations, waste our time and push commercial wares in social settings. Confident they're not risking their personal reputations, they behave nastily, vulgarly, even obscenely.

Miss Manners is shocked. Is this another sign of modern deterioration? Until we went online, everything was fine.

Oh, perhaps not. Miss Manners is discouraged that the age-old problems of rudeness are sullying our newest communities, but she is grateful people realize the only hope of controlling the situation is to establish electronic etiquette.

In offline society, some folks still argue for etiquette-free behavior. "Why can't everybody just behave naturally?" they ask, as if that weren't precisely the problem.

Things are more sophisticated in cyberspace, where a multitude of Miss Manners' helpers are promoting etiquette and posting rules. Unlike their elders, they understand that we need to control our more destructive and offensive natural impulses before we can enjoy community activities.

That sacrifice is the premise of any form of human society. Yet we continue to look for ways to regulate only other people's objectionable behavior. At the same time, we retain the privilege of punishing rudeness with even greater rudeness.

The law alone has never succeeded in controlling human behavior in all its repulsive naturalness. As abuses in cyberspace become increasingly commonplace, debates rage over proposed laws to control the Internet. But they're always accompanied by an acknowledgment of the difficulty and danger of policing cyberspace. Yes, we need the full force of law to punish crime, but can we lock someone up for being rude and annoying?

That's etiquette's job: to tactfully persuade people to refrain from provocative acts and settle their differences peaceably.

Cyberspace etiquette rules are pretty much the same as those in real life, even if the terms differ. A flame by any other name would smell as sour. But as elsewhere, it's possible to have subgroups with their own standards. In some circles, for instance, flaming may be considered good sport-providing everyone plays by the rules.

That's why a general plea for undefined civility would be insufficient, even if, by some miracle, it brought results. Because there exists a staggering variety of online communities, local etiquette is required for each one. Anyone who wants to participate in a particular group has an obligation to take the time to first learn its particular customs.

What is the taste level? What constitutes a good question, and what qualifies as an annoyingly obvious one? Where does one draw the line between contributing useful information and becoming a bore? When is it okay to change the subject or introduce another topic? Are opinions welcome? When can or should two people continue their conversation in private?

This is a challenge because cyberspace communities lack what were once considered community-defining features. Social relationships develop among people who've never met and probably never will. The nonverbal signals we ordinarily use and interpret-facial expressions, appearance, tone-are absent.

We can't assume common backgrounds-cultural, educational or generational. Because there are no third-party introductions, what is known about one's cyberspace companions is only what they choose to tell. Inventing fictional histories is not only possible, it may be one of the attractions.

Anonymity, which always brings out the worst in people, has never been easier. So how can we get these people to observe an etiquette standard?

It's never easy to get people to follow etiquette rules, even those most indignant about the rudeness of others. The only polite punishment for etiquette violations is the refusal to associate with the offender. Online, this means posting the IDs of the rude-and repeating this information every time these boors reappear to "exude rude" under new names-and blocking their access to the cyberspace equivalent of polite society. Social banishment may be a sticks-and-stones threat compared with a prison sentence, but it's effective nonetheless.

Judith Martin's new book, Miss Manners Rescues Civilization (Crown Publishers), is due out in May. Have a comment-or a gripe-about Windows computing you'd like to share? Send it to Nancy A. Lang. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here. Just remember to be polite.

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