Every so often I think about taking the bus. I’d like to be socially responsible, reducing our country’s dependence on foreign oil imports and lowering my personal contribution to atmospheric pollution.

Regrettably, my irregular schedule discourages the practice. After 5pm, the bus runs only once an hour, and if you’ve ever stood outside in a Minnesota bus stop in January, you understand the limits of social responsibility – and of centrally-controlled, shared resources.

Yet Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and Lou Gerstner all want me to embrace the network computer (NC) which, bus-like, will impose unnecessary and unwanted constraints on me.

The NC concept rests on false assumptions (FAs, to use the technical term). Among them:

FA #1: The NC and Thin Client are related: Nope. “Thin client” is a software architecture. Three-tier client/server architectures partition applications into independent processes handling presentation logic, “business logic” (a catch-all for a variety of different functions) and database services. You can implement thin-client applications on PCs. Heck, you can run everything on the same desktop PC and still have a thin client. It’s software, not hardware.

By the way, do you think “thin client” would be so appealing if they’d called the alternative a “thick client” or “muscular client”? And would it still be a “fat client” if it ran QNX or Linux instead of something flabby like Windows? I doubt it. This isn’t a dialog. It’s name calling.

FA #2: The NC and Java are the same thing: Well of course not. A PC can run Java code just fine. Not only that, but you can upgrade a PC with a better just-in-time Java compiler, language revisions, bug-fixes, and other stuff like that.

FA #3: The PC has huge hidden costs: This takes more than a one-paragraph tirade. A hint: everything written on the subject is a cost analysis, not a cost/benefit analysis, not a cost comparison with alternatives, and not the only analysis that matters: a cost/benefit comparison with alternatives that provide equivalent functionality.

FA #4: Java is portable: Wait a few years. You’ll have new models of the NC with enhanced functionality. You’ll have proprietary extensions. You’ll have competing, incompatible NC architectures. Suppliers differentiate themselves from each other, because if they don’t they’re selling commodities, and commodities have razor-thin margins.

FA #5: The NC has no hidden costs: Once you buy into NCs you’ll need more bandwidth, bigger servers, and more sophisticated network, server, and applications management.

Why do you think IS installs applications on PC hard disks instead of servers now? It’s the bandwidth needed to download DLLs from servers. Download a DLL, download a Java application, what’s the difference? Java doesn’t magically shrink the size and complexity of a word processor or spreadsheet.

And since the NC is simply a paperweight when the network, server, or application crashes, you need better management of all three. Clue: who wants to sell you the servers and management software?

Here’s why the NC won’t succeed. People bought PCs specifically to gain independence from control-oriented IS organizations. The PC freed employees to do what they chose, not what IS decided they should do.

The claimed benefit of the NC is its greatest hidden cost: With it, IS morphs back into the god of software, arrogantly dictating what end-users can and can’t use. If the NC succeeds, end-users will simply re-invent the disconnected PC or independent departmental LAN, so they can do what they want, instead of what IS lets them.

Technology doesn’t only follow business requirements. Sometimes it creates business opportunities, or leads to unexpected business results.

Adoption of personal computer technology in the 1980s led inevitably to employee empowerment. Look at the arguments in favor of the NC and you’ll discover a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise employees again.

As is true so often when you peel the onion a bit, it’s enough to make you cry.

Not too long ago, some expert or other claimed that overcoming the market dominance of an initial entrant is virtually impossible. Interesting theory.

As I recall, at least a half-dozen colleagues quoted this “first mover” theory as an important business insight. It was pretty convincing. The only reason I’m skeptical is that I can’t think of a single example where the theory holds, while the entire history of our industry consists of ugly little facts that disprove it.

The early dominators – the Apple II computer, CP/M operating system, Macintosh GUI, Epson printer, WordStar word processor, VisiCalc spreadsheet, dBase II database – all have either vanished completely or have retreated to being niche players. Often, their immediate successors have fallen by the wayside as well. Only Netware has so far managed to maintain its early market dominance, and its continued success is far from a sure thing.

As my grandmother said in a different context, what you say is less important than how you say it. This explains the influence of many experts and self-anointed visionaries.

As your company’s technology leader, you’re supposed to be its technology visionary (in your spare time, when you’re done tuning network performance). Today, I’m going to reveal the secret to success: read some old science fiction. It doesn’t have to be good science fiction. It just has to be science fiction – not fantasy, or some other related genre. Want proof?

Wearable computers: I’ve read the occasional pundit sound tremendously visionary by describing these gadgets. The main unit may be flexible and adhere to the skin, or it may be a pouch on the belt. The user-interface is either a direct jack into the brain, or it’s a heads-up display built into a pair of glasses. Whatever the case, the pundit describes it as the Next Big Deal.

Big Deal. I first read about wearable computers sometime around 1966 in a short story whose plot was thoroughly forgettable. The human received output through bone conduction and input by subvocalizing – pretty good, practical ideas even now.

Wearable computers are, then, a 30-year-old idea.

Information Everywhere: We all know of at least one industry leader who presents this as a daring vision. Too bad Poul Anderson described the same notion over 20 years ago. In this case, the plot revolved around a society in which all but the dispossessed enjoyed the services of a portable, AI-based interface to a wireless ubiquitous information network. Society’s untouchables couldn’t afford the technology, and were forever relegated to poverty and the disdain of the higher classes.

The idea of information haves and have-nots isn’t, then, exactly new.

Replicators: About 30 years ago, I read a series of short stories about a space station run by some wizard-caliber engineers. One of their inventions was a replicator, similar to that shown on Star Trek around the same time.

What was remarkable was the author’s description of complete economic collapse resulting from the invention. Since a replicator could replicate replicators, the device itself cost next to nothing. And with replicators, once someone created anything of value, an infinite number of additional copies immediately spread through society without any compensation going to the inventor.

This, to me, sounds a lot like our information economy. Replication technology, in the form of the COPY command, is available to huge numbers of individuals beyond any realistic hope of copyright enforcement.

Why do you need to be a technology visionary? That’s a topic for a future column. For now, I’ll just present that as an opinion. If you agree and want help, you can get it from high-priced “experts”, or you can read the literature of the future … the literature in which Robert Heinlein, in the 1930s, predicted a post-world-war-two nuclear stalemate between the United States and Russia.

And science fiction generally has, as a fringe bonus, a plot.