Unenthusiastic about the "Un-PC"


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LIKE a bad penny that keeps turning up, the idea of a thin computing client refuses to die.

Its latest reincarnation is the $100 “Un-PC" that Newsweek trumpets in its Feb. 12 issue as a replacement for the personal computer.

A company in India called Novatium has begun selling the NetPC for only $100, but here’s the catch: it has no hard disk, very little memory to speak of, and uses a cheap processor of undisclosed origin that’s more typically found on mobile phones. The software? Zip. You’ll have to subscribe to that, including the operating system, which will be rented out to you over the Internet. You can’t save your files locally, either—you’ll have to send them back to the server over the Internet.

A similar device, called NetTV, can also use a regular TV instead of a computer monitor, guaranteeing eyestrain at a tear-inducing resolution of 640 x 480 pixels.

Any takers so far?

The “magic" that will turn this pile of cheap electronics into a working computer is the network.

Programs would be bundled along with Internet access, and sold on a subscription basis—say, for $10 a month, says Rajesh Jain, Novatium founder.

Neither Jain nor the glowing Newsweek article by Jason Overdorf makes clear if this $10 a month is on top of the NetPC’s $100 price, but the concept is clear enough, if not new.

Jain acknowledges that he was inspired by the network computer touted in the 1990s by Oracle Corp. head honcho Larry Ellison, who boldly predicted at the time that thin clients would kill off PCs. That never happened, and the company Ellison set up to sell network computers went belly-up a few years after it was launched with much hoopla.

But Jain believes he can succeed where Ellison failed because Western markets already had a lot of PCs and resisted change. Jain’s home base in India, with far fewer PCs, could be more fertile ground for a radical change in personal computing.

Jain also says the NetPC will feature many of the advantages that Ellison’s network computer had-centrally managed software updates, simplicity on the desktop client and low cost.

Inevitably, Newsweek compares the NetPC to the $100 laptop being promoted by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte. The comparison is pointless. The NetPC is aimed at companies and home users in urban areas with broadband connections. Negroponte’s laptop is aimed at poor schoolchildren in remote Third World villages that might not even have electricity.

Yet Newsweek seems to be on a hobbyhorse, implying that Novatium stands a better chance of success because its owners are motivated by profit, in contrast to Negroponte, who needs donations and subsidies to get his project off the ground.

The article points to today’s Web-hosted software and data storage—but neglects to say that most of these applications still run on full-featured PCs.

Making a string of assumptions about network computing, Newsweek’s enthusiasm goes into overdrive: “This formula could provide a long-sought bridge over the digital divide—and may just change the way the average person thinks of computing. . . . And if the winning formula turns out to be Jain’s, or something like it, it could kill the PC altogether. "

Unfortunately, Newsweek gives us few specifics about how this will come about. In fact, it offers precious little information about the NetPC itself or how well it performs in comparison to a regular desktop computer.

Novatium’s Web site isn’t much help, either. It doesn’t say what kind of processor the NetPC uses or how much memory it has. A spec sheet says it comes with network, microphone, speaker and video ports and four USB 2.0 sockets and runs on an embedded Linux-based operating system, but no other details are available.

This paucity of information is worrying.

There are many theories about why Ellison’s network computer failed. One view is that the concept was ahead of its time because broadband access wasn’t as widely available back then. Another explanation was that PC manufacturers had cut prices so dramatically that full-featured computers didn’t cost much more than Ellison’s thin client.

These two factors are arguably less important today for the NetPC.

But even if the speed of my broadband connection suddenly doubled tomorrow, I still wouldn’t trade in my PC for a $100 NetPC and here’s why. First, I run applications that would crawl over a network. You can do word processing reasonably well over the Internet, but don’t try manipulating a 60-megabyte graphic file or editing video over a network unless you have a lot of time on your hands. And hosted applications will slow down as more users get on the network.

Second, I like local storage and I have a hunch most people do, too. This is why we save data files to the hard disk, keep backups of important files, burn digital photos onto CDs and fill up MP3 players with our favorite songs. We like having this stuff available, even when the network isn’t.

Finally, and perhaps most important, I like the freedom to run any program I want on my computer without having to get it from some centralized server. This is what drove people from dumb terminals and centralized computing in the first place, and this is what will keep thin clients out of the computing mainstream for years to come. The PC let the genie out of the bottle, and it will take more than a rehashed network computer to get it back in.

From Digital Life by Chin Wong


Chin Wong has been covering the technology industry since the 1980s, starting as a reporter for Business Day, Southeast Asia’s first daily business newspaper. He is now a lecturer in journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines and associate editor for the Manila Standard Today. Before that, he also served as technology editor of the Manila Times until October 2004.


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