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Why Network Computers won’t work (part I)

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I’m feeling pretty crabby over the excitement generated by network computers. P.T. Barnum could probably explain it, except that he’s dead. He knew every passing minute results in the birth of one more sucker.

It all comes down to bad cost accounting and dumb measures. PCs cost more to support than more traditional architectures, we’re told: three out of five dollars goes to support costs. We’re also told client/server systems cost three times more to develop than traditional systems.

It may even be true, although as previous columns have pointed out, the chance these comparisons having any meaning is pretty small. Even if it is true, it’s irrelevant.

One reason: companies that focus on cost are doomed. Companies that spend their energy reducing costs forget why they spend that money … to retain and attract customers.

Paul Erlich, writing about species extinction, came up with the metaphor of the rivet-popper, who sat on the wing of an airplane removing rivets. When a passenger complained to the pilot he explained the plane didn’t need that rivet anyway. The proof? The wing is still attached, isn’t it?

Cutting unnecessary costs is a Good Thing (GT to use the acronym). Far too many companies forget the keyword “unnecessary” and figure cutting costs is a GT. It’s not: most costs are investments in customer loyalty and acquisition.

The point: companies need to focus on value, not cost. Does anyone seriously think network computers will provide as much value on the desktop as a full-fledged PC?

And now, a reality check. Network computers will run software downloaded from servers. They’ll be completely compatible across all manufacturers, running the same code with no configuration problems, driver idiosyncrasies, or other technology-generated headaches.

I sure believe this. My 20 years of experience in this industry lead me to believe vendors work together in harmony to produce standards designed to maximize customer value, then resist the temptation to create propriety extensions or non-standard alternatives. Don’t you?

No matter how much grass we smoke, it’s always greener under someone else’s bed.

Let’s put our collective experience with real-world vendors aside, though, and pretend these gadgets really will work as advertised. Our support headaches will evaporate overnight.

So when someone in Accounting creates a critical spreadsheet and saves it before going home in the evening (on the server, since there’s no local storage) IS can be assured the spreadsheet program will run without trouble.

And when that accountant needs to do a bit of work at home because she’s a single Mom and has to put the kids to bed, but she’s on deadline for the next morning, she just pulls the spreadsheet up on her home computer and …

Oops! It runs from the network only. Okay, let’s imagine this technology allows for remotely accessing the corporate network from home. So she dials in and downloads the spreadsheet, so she can work on it on … hold it. She has Excel on her home computer. She bought it herself, of course, because her employer uses network computers. So she tries to load the spreadsheet into Excel and …

Hold it again. Do you think the network computer runs a spreadsheet that’s 100% compatible with Excel? I believe this just as much as I believe WordPerfect and MS Word exchange files while perfectly maintaining all formatting.

Now how about that mobile sales force? Are you going to outfit every one of those guys with a laptop network computer and 10 Mbps wireless network connection?

You think your support costs are high now? Start thinking about a mixed architecture, with network computers on the desktop and standard PCs everywhere else. You haven’t even begun to buy Excedrin in bulk.

So before we all get too excited about network computers, let’s do some serious thinking about how people use personal computers now, and figure out how they’ll react when we tell them they won’t be able to do that stuff anymore.