The Network is the Computer


Welcome back and apologies for the delay in getting this latest blog out, seems when you have 3 young boys the holidays are kind of big.  In the latest issue of Wired an article appeared recalling the launch by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison of the “Network is the Computer” initiative.  Given where I am in my timeline and remembering this period fairly well it seemed a good time to reflect, comment and look forward.  When the internet age launched there were no lack of big ideas.  It also launched the period of anything but Microsoft (ABM).  At this time Oracle and its flamboyant CEO, Larry Ellison were not that well-known in most technology circles.  Like so many ideas at the time, the idea of the “Network as the Computer” was not a bad idea at all, it was just ahead of its time.

For those who read my blog let’s recap what this idea was and possibly put it in the context of today.  The idea was simple all your date and applications could be run off a server on the internet and the desktop would not have to do much just render the pages as they came across the web.  To go back further in the history of computing your desktop device would be a “dumb” terminal, like those green screens many people had used in the seventies.  As the article rightly pointed out this would sell more Oracle databases and make Larry famous, which was important to Larry.  I will say I admire Larry Ellison I think he is incredibly smart, a sharp businessman, who has led Oracle to incredible success.  Oracle is also the one software vendor to stand the test of time in competing against Microsoft.  He is also the consummate playboy and may have the world’s largest ego.  After Larry presented his idea, a lot of companies jumped on board, primarily IBM and Sun Microsystems.  They had a lot of buzz going.  In the tech industry generating “buzz” is paramount to success.

Sun Microsoystems really jumped on this bandwagon.  They were hell-bent on taking down Microsoft.  No one in the industry was more focused on this than Sun (I will focus on Sun in an upcoming blog).  They developed a terminal for the “Network is the Computer” initiative and launched the device to the world.  It was an elegant “dumb” terminal. They even managed to sell a few,  However what I remember was the pictures of the boxes being removed from customers after a failed trial.  These circulated around Microsoft so pretty much everyone saw them as a Microsoft employee was there at the scene to take the photo’s.   Still early in the digital camera age as they were not prevalent at time.

IBM started down the path, but then CEO Lou Gerstner, backed off and redirected IBM back into services.  As the saying went “No one was ever fired for going with Big Blue”.  I give Gerstner a lot of credit for redirecting the ship at IBM and generating the success they have seen that continues to this day.  The lesson for IBM was, do not forget what you are known for and good at.  Today’s Microsoft may want to revisit what IBM did in the mid nineties. They remain one of Microsoft’s biggest competitors.

What were the limiting factors?  Well at the time it was still early in the dotcom bubble and what was really happening was a build out of the internet infrastructure.  Fiber was being laid down all over the globe.  Data Centers were popping up all over the place.  You learned a lot about railways as they had what was known as “Right of Way” and a lot of fiber that was laid down ran next to the train tracks.  The build out of the internet was often compared to the expansion of the rail roads in the latter 1800’s.  Finally there was the “last mile”.  This was what ran into your home.  At the time and still today three entities own this (Telecommunication Carriers, Cable Companies, and the Utilities).  The problem was what we have today was still early on so very few had Cable Modems or DSL Lines.  So despite all this infrastructure build out to deliver these services, the service was still very slow and frankly not very good.  Not just the speed but the applications being delivered.

Today this idea has resurfaced in the form of cloud computing.  Where cloud has it right is it is not billing itself as a replacement to the PC, but focusing more on the value to the end customer.  This initial effort has been led by Amazon , but in the last couple of years everyone has jumped on board – Microsoft, Google, IBM, Salesforce.com. etc..The economic downturn we are still in has helped drive the value proposition for cloud computing – off load your IT costs and save money.  We are still at the early stages of cloud computing – having presented the Microsoft version to customers, many know they need to do it as costs are driving decisions, but they do not know which applications to offload, let alone which cloud platform to trust. 

What the network is the computer and today’s cloud computing offer is just an updated version of yester years mainframe, which is a centralization of computing.  I fully expect and predict down the road when we master multicore computing and have a processor with 16, 32 or 64 cores, development will shift back to the client.  When you have that kind of horse power on a client PC, someone will figure out how to leverage it.  If you go back through the history of computing these things tend to be cyclical.  At one point the industry focus’ on centralized computing and at other times it moves back to the end-points.

The “Network is the computer” was a big idea, like so many things in the dotcom era, however I truly believe that the tech industry is built for big ideas.  Most times they don’t pan out however they lay the foundation for great work to be spun off from the initial development or to be re-introduced later and greater.  Remember Microsoft started as a big idea, “A PC on every desktop and in every home”.  It took 20 years but through many efforts it eventually came true.  With the explosion in data (video, digital pictures, music etc..) the idea of the cloud is ripe for both the enterprise and end users.  Even my wife is concerned about our data and asks me if there are online back up services.  Tech people create the ideas, but end users drive the market for those ideas to success or failure.  Have a Happy New Year everyone!!

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