In writing Now's the time for the network computer, my colleague and fellow blogger Dana Gardner has it all wrong. OK, maybe half wrong. The network computer bit is 100 percent dead-on. It's the Oracle part he has wrong.
To everybody including Novell CEO Jack Messman who thinks Microsoft's forthcoming version of Windows (Vista) will be the tipping point that starts to swing people to Desktop Linux, I hate to break it to you, but my sense is that that game is over. In playing with the beta of Windows Vista (and pouring through the documentation of its design goals) and having worked with the desktop and server versions of Linux (actually, with Linux, the difference between the two is far less formal than in the Windows world), neither is about to disrupt the future or the existing user bases of the other in any significant way. Yes, there will be defectors one way or the other. And each operating system is endearing to us for one reason or another. But, the truth (an awful truth in cases that stretch well beyond technology) is that while some people and organizations venture off the farm some of the time, most people stay on the farm most of the time. It's human nature to stay in a comfort zone, even when that comfort zone isn't as comfortable as humans would like it to be.
To really motivate people to change, the technology typically must be so disruptive to the status quo and the benefits so obviously undeniable, that people and organizations can't not consider the change. On the server front, Linux has fit that bill. But on the desktop front, about the best we can argue is that Linux is keeping Microsoft on its toes (as desktop OSes go, Vista is going to be pretty darn good, if you ask me). At the end of the day, they're both operating systems. But, at the end of the next major disruption, the fact that they are operating systems -- thick ones at that (by the time the end-user is fully empowered) -- will have been their downfall.
That's because desktop operating systems are the equivalent of an on-premises backoffice solution in what is increasingly becoming an off-premises, on-demand world. If the meteoric success of software as a service (SaaS), application service provider (ASP)-delivered solutions like salesforce.com and RightNow Technologies teaches us anything, it's that to really get people to do the double-take that's a pre-requisite to switching, a solution has to turn the status quo on its ear. And that's exactly what salesforce, Rightnow, and others like NetSuite and Authoria are doing.
What's the status quo? The status quo is where you're spending more of your time and resources running your own systems, worrying about uptime and, updates, and security, and backing up and restoring your data, and spending an extraordinary amount of money on software licensing alone for your on-premises solutions than you should be. In the SaaS world, not only are all those operational headaches someone else's headaches, the solution providers save money by spreading the cost of single instance of their solution over hundreds or thousands of customers. This art form of solution provision -- known as multi-tenancy (see revenge of the ASP) -- is a key to SaaSers (SaaS solution providers) keeping their costs down and passing the savings on to you in a way that makes the solutions they provide impossible not to consider. Less money. Less headaches. More sense.
Meanwhile, over in desktop land, where the users are far less technical and headaches of updates, security, backing up, etc, etc. are about 100 times worse, here we are still trudging along the old school way taking viruses on the chin and bearing it. If we can learn anything from salesforce.com and RightNow technologies, it's that another on-premises solution like desktop Linux isn't going to upset the applecart very much.
In other words, breaking news: If you're waiting for something to move the needle on the desktop the way SaaSers have done it for on-premises backoffice solutions (and the way it should be moved), Desktop Linux isn't that something. Neither is the Mac. But Dana Gardner is absolutely right that the network computer is. The question now is, who is going to bring it to us? Gardner suggests that it's time for Oracle's Larry Ellison -- who once fancied the idea of a network computer -- to take another stab at it.
Ellison, however, is no better equipped to manage that challenge than is Novell's Messman who thinks the answer is Desktop Linux. With his recent acquisition of Siebel and investments in salesforce.com and NetSuite and with nothing but backoffice solutions, he's a backoffice SaaSer. Dana, if you're looking for two companies that have their sites sites set squarely on Microsoft and have been dancing around Redmond's desktop jewels, each in their own SaaSy way, then those two companies are Google and IBM.
Hopefully, I'll have more to say about IBM soon. As I just posited earlier today, Big Blue has thrown some serious weight behind the new Open Document standard -- a standard that Microsoft so far has refused to support. Such locker room shenanigans would hardly be newsworthy if it wasn't for the fact that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is establishing Open Document as the standard document format for all state agencies and contractors that do businesses with them. IBM was also a participant in Massachusetts' pre-OpenDoc-adoption deliberations.
It's highly unlikely that IBM, which with Workplace currently has its feet planted more firmly in the network computer camp than it does the desktop operating system camp, would throw as much weight as it has behind the OpenDoc and Massachusetts initiatives without following up with an offering in earnest. Do you think it wants some of the business that Massachusetts is about to put in play now that Microsoft appears hell bent on leaving it on the table? I do.
Already today, through the various applications it offers, Google is providing millions of end users with the same exact thing that salesforce.com and Rightnow are providing: multi-tenant applications that make systems administration someone else's headache and that cost dramatically less than if you had to do it all yourself. But for Google, one problem remains (a problem that $4 billion can help solve). Provided it crosses that final chasm, and finds a way to give 95 percent of the end users out there the 5 percent of the functionality they require of Windows+Office, in order for Google to really make it count for those end users, it has to take away their biggest headache: the PC at the end of the pipe.
I was reminded of this when, last week, a misbehaving upgrade to my Yahoo! instant messenger client sent me into a tizzy of system administration tasks that left me asking one question: why, in this day and age, am I doing this? Why, after more than twenty years in the information technology business, am I still editing configuration files. Then it was autoexec.bat and config.sys. Today, it's the Windows registry. Why should I worry about backing up or restoring my data? I suddenly found myself wanting -- no, praying -- that whatever it is that Google is hatching to compete with Microsoft's desktop technologies that it come sooner rather than later. Just like the on premises CRM administrator who said "to heck with it. Make all these headaches salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff's headaches and charge me less for it," I'm ready to hand-off.
Sorry Intel. For the functionality that the Net can deliver today, I'm no longer convinced that a PC -- at least one with a big ass OS like Windows or Linux is what I need. About my only concern is what to do when I don't have access to a network (or, maybe I could use those unexpected breaks?). But Intel's or AMD's chips belong in my next purchase: a Google PC. Don't let the acronym PC fool you. It's a network computer with a few extra bells and whistles to support things like GoogleTalk. It looks feels, and smells like a svelte network computer but has 95 percent of the functionality of the PC that took me where no man should go last week. It can do everything a business PC can do because, hey, guess what: all our business apps can be SaaSyized anyway. But, at the end of the day, the Google PC (or maybe Yahoo will beat them) isn't much more than what today's cable boxes and cell phones are: remarkably thin clients (given what they do) that are customized to take full advantage of all that service provider has to offer. Oh, and produced in partnership with "the carrier."
Get ready. Remember all those boxes you saw going out in the trash (or hopefully the recycle pile) these past then years? The ones with the Dell logos or cow spots on them? I thinking white boxes with a red green yellow and blue logo. For about a tenth of the cost and none of the headaches. I'm ready. The question is, are you?
PS: Google is obviously available for comment on any story. Just not to any of us who work for CNET Networks. But, if you think I've got this wrong, tell me where.