Network computer returns

After a PC crash last October I blogged about the network computers that were being touted 10+ years ago.

Now I see that they might be making a return, but now they are being called netbooks.

My wife recently bought the Asus version, the Eee PC. It cost her R 2,700 (about US$300) and runs Linux with OpenOffice software. The storage option is to plug in a USB flash drive. She bought it so she has a light PC to work on when she travels.

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Wherefore the network computer?

On Friday my laptop crashed – a system file called a ‘hive file’ was corrupted and I could not boot up Windows. Our technician battled to sort the problem out, but eventually we realised that I would have to use the recovery disk that came with my laptop (a Sony Vaio). Fortunately that seems to have worked, but I wasted hours on Friday going home to fetch the disk, running the recovery, and getting the machine back on the network. I probably spent half the day at home on Saturday re-installing my applications, and I still have more programs to install on Monday when I’m back in the office. Sony partitions the Vaio disk so that there is a separate data disk, so that when a recover is run it wipes the applications partition, not the data.

When you have an experience like that you begin to appreciate other technology platform options.  Ten years ago when I was working for Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) (which went into Compaq, which went into HP) the company had a project called Shark. The goal of Shark was to develop a type of thin client computer – called a network computer (NC) – one which could run all the standard PC applications like Office, not only web-based ones. Whether the NC was a viable platform or not, its fate was reportedly sealed at a meeting between DEC’s CEO, Bob Palmer, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates who told Palmer to drop the Shark project. A probable reason was that Larry Ellison promoted the NC heavily – I remember seeing him doing a typical over-the-top presentation on the NC.

The point of the NC was that you used a smart card to store your personal configuration, and could pop it into any NC anywhere to access your data and applications which were stored safely on a server.

I thought how much easier my life could have been had all my applications, set-ups and data been running on a server somwhere, and all I had to do was plug into a different NC. Interestly, I see from Nick Carr’s blog that Google might be aiming in that direction – and whatever happened to the Shark, perhaps Google with all its resources could re-start that project.