The Network Computer Arrives…Finally!

Thank you Eric Schmidt for taking me down memory lane, to the heyday of another bubble, in another century. Today, at the launch of Chrome OS — a new Google (s goog) operating system for web-centric computing — Schmidt talked about 1997 when he (then at Sun Microsystems) and Larry Ellison and everyone else talked about the idea of a network computer.

Network computer, at the time, was defined as a stripped-down machine, with little or no moving parts, cheap processors and ample bandwidth to compute over the network. It was a computing equivalent of Silicon Valley’s Moby Dick. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle (s ORCL) was the proverbial Captain Ahab.

Larry “Captain Ahab” Ellison

In 1995, Larry Ellison talked about a network computer that would cost $500 a pop and would free the world from Microsoft (s msft). “A PC is a ridiculous device. What the world really wants is to plug into a wall to get electronic power, and plug in to get data,” said Ellison at the time.

His idea was a sound one, though at the time, a tad impractical. Oracle’s Network Computer subsidiary lost $175 million and was eventually spun out as Liberate Technologies, a company that transitioned to building software for set-top boxes.

Nevertheless, the idea had strong appeal for Silicon Valley’s power brokers, and they kept plowing dollars into the network computer. Marc Andreessen was an early champion. What was good for Ellison was good for IBM (s ibm) too. But the guy who was completely besotted by the idea of network computer was Eric Schmidt. It was Schmidt and his cohorts at Sun who came up with Java Station, a disaster if there was any. The Java-based network computer was underpowered when compared to the PCs of the day.

Have a Corona

The network computer hype had died down by 1998, but the Sun team hadn’t given up. They once again went back to the drawing board and started working on a network-business appliance, code-named Corona.

I first broke the story about Sun’s ultra-secret PC killer back in August 1999. Unlike an all-purpose consumer device, it was targeted at the enterprises and was pitched as “zero admin cost” machine. No need for expensive storage — just lean processors with ample bandwidth. It plug into the network and essentially brought up a “state” for folks to start working. You needed a special Java-enabled card that created the “state” on any device, regardless from where you were accessing the data. It was targeted at airlines, retailers and package transportation companies.

Sun eventually called it the Sun Ray, thus bringing a short-term revival of thin clients. Even a new version of Java Station was launched, to no avail. The network computer in early attempts failed because the devices were too expensive when compared to low-cost personal computers and bandwidth was still extremely expensive and the connections, even on corporate networks weren’t fast enough. The software and the experience just weren’t compelling enough, and there were limited use cases for the device.

The Past Is the Future

As Chrome OS was being launched, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between the two products. The early customers for this new Chrome OS based computer (with no admin-costs) are American Airlines (s amr), Intercontinental Hotels and some retailers. Onstage, Schmidt said that he and his peers were talking about these very same problems — total cost of ownership, security and ease of use — when they were first discussing the network computers.

“We were right that the underlying problems really were a problem, but were wrong in understanding how complex the problems were,” he said. Of course, as time passed the networks got faster, the components got cheaper, but more importantly, the rise of AJAX and the evolution of the open source LAMP stack allowed the idea of web-based applications to blossom. And from there, evolved the idea of a web-based operation environment/system. “Chrome finally broke through architectural frameworks with respect to speed and security,” a beaming Schmidt said. “It is now finally possible to build powerful apps on top of a browser platform.”

Schmidt believes Chrome OS is the third viable real operating system, one that breaks from the past, and looks into a cloud-services centric future that would re-define the idea of what an OS should be.

With Chrome, Google has done a good job of executing on the idea of “network computer,” offering a suite of cloud services. In 2008, I wrote up a list of ten features that a good cloud client must have — Google has done one better with their prototype device, the CR-48.

“The long term vision of browser as an OS for web applications” said, Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice president of Product Management for Chrome said. Making browsers speedy and responsive to today’s web tasks, they have made it possible to do more inside the browser.

I was particularly impressed by the improvements they have made to JavaScript, a boon for web applications. Other extensions that tap into the hardware for graphical improvements will only going to make the browser more desktop-like. Pichai has to feel good — he is helping realize his boss’s vision for the network computer. Too bad, Schmidt and Ellison are not talking to each other anymore.

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