And now, without further ado: the Google PC

And now, without further ado: the Google PC

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Google

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 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 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 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.

And then, there's Google (and even Yahoo to some extent).  The company has already re-invented the Internet experience in so many ways that you'd have to be hiding under a rock to think the Office-Windows franchise isn't in its cross hairs.  Although Microsoft has been taking the credit for pioneering Asynchronous JavaScript + XML (AJAX), Google gets the prize for rolling it out to the masses in a way that makes many browser-based applications behave as though they're running on a thick desktop.   More breaking news: With a bunch of AJAX apps (GMail, Google Suggest, Google Maps, etc) under its belt and with Google already all over the desktop (between solutions like Google Desktop and GoogleTalk) and with another $4 billion in the bank, the company ain't stopping there.  

Already today, through the various applications it offers, Google is providing millions of end users with the same exact thing that 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 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.

Topic: Google

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  • Was that intentional?

    Using 'adieu' instead of 'ado'? The actual phrase is 'without further ado', where 'ado' means fuss or bother. I suppose your meaning could be as in 'adieu to both Windows and Linux'. I sense a common theme in both your and Paul Murphy's recent blogs.

    Carl Rapson
    • Not the only spelling error

      cf. "pouring" for "poring"
  • You are spot on, but the first version will run in Firefox.

    So you will be able to try out the Google experience by downloading Firefox and installing a Google plug-in. And, hopefully, Google will do everything based on standards like they did with Jabber. And, hey, it would also be nice if they make the plugin available for Linux.

    There are a lot of venders out there trying to deliver the next generation rich web application platform such as Adobe/Flash, Microsoft/Vista, but Google is positioned to deliver the platform AND the applications. This is the difference, Micrsoft and Adobe are targeting the developers, Google is targeting the END USER.

    Well, this is exciting, this is history happening before our very eyes, this will be bloody, there will be law suits, there are Billions going to the winner.
    • I don't think so

      Remember the Netscape Desktop? 'nuf said
      • The Netscape desktop was a good idea, but was over 10 years early.

        We need to have reliable broadband and dirt cheap computers available for this vision to work. We did not have that 10 years ago. And, remember, Google will supply the applications AND the platform. Actually the platform will be nearly free, all based on open source software and open standards.

        The trick they need to figure out, is how to automatically cash applications for ofline use. You would want to be able to use your laptop on the airplane, or your desktop when the network is down.

        But, eventually, the network will be more reliable than water and electricity. How many businesses have backup water systems? How many businesses have backup electricity? If either water or electricity are out, you send everybody home. The truth is that if things are very reliable, we are willing to be unable to work in the event of failure. Especially, a home user might very well be willing to accept the risk that the computer does not work when the network is down.
        • Sadly

          >How many businesses have backup electricity?

          Sadly most small businesses that I have dealt with either don't have a UPS or the unit that they have is old and would not support the machine that they are connected to when it was needed. Your comment only really applies to companies that have an IT department; most small companies do not and there is a magnatude more small companies than IT sized companies. How many home users own a UPS? Other than the geeks that I know, none. I know for a fact that the small companies that I work with would laugh if I suggested that they should pay a monthly fee for access to a server to support thin clients. They all buy cheap PC's and use them until they melt down. Those of them that have confidentuality concerns such as law firms do not want their data stored off site if it is not a location that they control. The only thing that I could them to agree to was rsync to a Linux router sitting at one of their homes.

          The network thin client works well for the network admin's and companies with IT departments, it does not work for home users and small companies without IT departments.
          • The point is, businesses already use tech that can disrupt the business.

            And, NO, a UPS will not keep you running when there is not electricity. There is no electricity, you send everybody home. There is no water, you send everybody home.

            So, businesses will use thin clients that do not work when the network is down, IF THE NETWORK IS RELIABLE ENOUGH. Will companies pay for a second backup network source if the primary is not reliable enough? Yes, just like they would buy a generator if the electricity was not reliable, or a cistern if the water was not reliable.

            And, small businesses without an IT department are maybe one of the best candidates for thin client. You buy boxes and connect them to the network, and then connect to your provider. A box fails, they send you a new one. Zero on-site maintenance. Not enough applications yet, just wait.
          • All major corps have backups

            While I'm not sure about water, the company I used to work for was in the top 5 largest software companies. We had our own power generator on premise. In fact, we had a major power outage one summer where all of the neighboring towns completely lost power. Our office was one of the only buildings to have power. I think our in-house generators were rated to last 3 days on their own.

            A small business is actually better served by a thick client. Think about it, if a server has a capacity for say 20 users, when you hit 21 users, you have to buy a brand new server? And then again at 41 and 61 users? Isn't it a lot easier to just to get another desktop? The only alternative is to off-site host the server (i.e. "on-demand") but this has significant drawbacks as well (network, maintenance costs, support costs, service costs, etc).

            Remember a server has limitations too. And unless if you want to completely trust another company to host your data, you need some sort of heavy machine in your building.

            This is the biggest reason most SMB's do NOT use client-server, it is simply much cheaper to just thick clients.
          • Thin clients

            To put your thoughts in mathematical terms, thick clients scale linearly.

            I don't know about Windows systems, but in the *nix world, middle-clients (all processing power on the client, but diskless) put a minimal strain on the server.

            For someone who wants central storage and linear scaling, that's what I'd choose.
            Media Whore
          • 'Nix Thin Clients

            "the *nix world, middle-clients (all processing power on the client, but diskless) put a minimal strain on the server."

            How is that different from using NAS? I mean, you basically have a thick client, but central storage right? So how is that different than having smaller server clusters with NAS (or even SAN) running thick clients?

            More than that, if all the processing power is on the client and storage is on the server, doesn't this make the client machine pretty expensive? Storage is cheap afterall, processors, graphics chips, and the higher end RAM are not. And if you already have a pretty powerful client machine, why not just add a disk to it and have the added benefit of a larger page cache (i.e. you can use the disk drive to perform page caching, "virtual RAM" to increase performance)?

            Not only that, you also can add distributed networking with thick clients.
          • SasS & SOX

            <i>Those of them that have confidentuality concerns such as law firms do not want their data stored off site if it is not a location that they control.</i>

            That is so true. If nothing else, SOX should put a limit on the growth of SaaS.

            It's a boon, though, to storage companies like Iron mountain, and to Maxtor, WD, etc. At the end of the evening, stream and encrypt the your data onto an external Firewire hard disk (or 3), and then send them home with trusted employees.
            Media Whore
    • Why?

      Will it require a browser plug-in to work? If so, doesn't that essentially lock the users into a particular browser (whichever one Google decides to support)? Why can't this capability be independent of the browser?

      Carl Rapson
  • It should be interesting

    to see how far off the mark you are. Remember all of the noise made regarding the Netscape PC? Remember how far that got?

    Both you and your associate Dana have failed to successfully address the reliability of the network. What you and Dana propose requires network connection that supports 5 9's (99.999%) uptime. DSL doesn't support that, Cable modems never even come as close to that as DSL. 5 9's requires a T1 quality connection which is not cost effective for the consumer and is not likely to be in the near future. The Bandwidth required for your working environment is also not supported by most providers. I have 6mpbs DSL at home I do use X-Windows over a WAN link and it is not acceptable for general use, probably because up upstream bandwidth is only 512 kbps. To base the entire environment on such a connection would be ridiculous. If I had to boot such an OS off of a WAN connection like I currently use at home, I wouldn't even bother turning it on.
    • And, we also remember the GUI developed at Xerox that went nowhere

      The problem is, they developed it before personal computers were cheap enough and powerfull enough. So, just because one company has a brilliant idea before it's time, does not mean that the idea won't be a smash later as the supporting technology develops. And, in many cases, it is a DIFFERENT company that makes it all work.
      • Wait and see

        I guess that is all we can do.

        In the meantime the entire computing landscape could change. I know that you prefer Linux, what if the desktop on Linux ever reached a point that it was comparable with that of a Mac (for everyone, not just someone with your obvious bias), what incentive would you have to use a thin client? That includes such things as availability of quality commercial software in local stores. You would not have one.

        In fact, do you ever see the Mac crowd wishing for a thin client? Why do you think that this is? Because the see no need. Same with the Windows folks.

        You might not think so but I use Linux everyday, not because it is required by an employer but because I choose to. I obviously also use Windows everyday. Even if my Linux desktop was as good as a Mac I would still have no desire for thin client instead of Linux. The drive for the mythical thin client is primarily driven by those people that would financially benefit from it. The big iron folks, the *nix server folks and the network admins. The end-user doesn't care and they certainly would not care for the monthly subscription payments that the server people would require of them to support their use of a thin client ever if the service provider threw in the thin client for free. And then there is the small matter of privacy. Do you want all of your personal documents stored on a server out of your control? If someone breaks into your personal computer then they have only access to your information, is someone breaks into a server that supports thousands of thin clients they have access to thousands of people's documents. Gee, I wonder which is the more tempting target. How many people now have a copy of Paris Hilton's phone book thanks to a thin client? Also, do you want to give big brother easier access to your documents? He has a much greater challenge reading person information off of your local hard drive then he does with a service provider who basically hands Homeland security the keys to the castle without thinking about it.

        The thin client is a dead horse and it should remain that way.
        • I agree with Dave Berlind, Linux can be better, but people stay on the farm

          They have their comfort zone with Windows, it is all they know. They won't change to something that requires a lot of re-learning if it is only "a little bit" better. Even the power users resist change. They are the Windows/Office experts, they are the one everyone looks to for help/advice. They would NOT want to change to being the new kid on the block that knows nothing. In my opinion, it will take a completely new paradigm that is extremely compelling before many will switch to a different Desktop.
          • It won't happen until:

            The thin client hardware is free with the service.

            The server side of my the thin client solution *INCLUDING A RELIABLE (99.999% uptime) FAST NETWORK CONNECTION* costs no more than my current DSL.

            Pigs learn to fly... :)

            At least two of the above three need to be true. :)
          • People change all the time..

            and the market is growing in directions difficult to predict. Thin
            client computing growth will not be from windows replacements,
            rather it will be from entirely new demand for inexpensive utility

            Predictions (based on decades in enterprise IT design):

            Enterprise: Thin client computing will grow increasingly popular
            because of security, disaster recovery, and legislative
            compliance. This will require the server be located within the
            enterprise (but its management might be outsourced). Required
            applications available today.

            SME: Thin client computing will grow increasingly popular to
            reduce the significant IT costs of current windows deployments,
            and to improve security and disaster recovery (two areas often
            overlooked by SMEs).

            The server will be continued to be located onsite with offsite
            backup and all support outsourced to a third party. Applications
            required : ERP/CRM (choices are available but notable exceptions
            for the smaller business), migration of small custom VBA apps.

            Massive potential in this market due to significant IT savings
            from the economies of scale available through outsourcing on a
            stable platform.

            Home: No interest in the thin client model.

            The thin client model, built on outsourced IT infrastructure built
            on the inexpensive yet highly available *nix architecture offers
            all of the savings of the network computer, without the risk of
            network unavailability.

            The big players in this new market could be the telcos, because
            of the central role of the network connection for support and
            Richard Flude
          • Could not agree more, but they won't switch to a fat Linux Client

            They have to have one of the many advantages you stated. But, I think for the home, there is a certain class that really only wants email, browser, simple word processing. They have NO idea how to maintain a Windows system. The game consoles could morph into a part time thin client. That is probably the ONLY reason that Microsoft is in the game market by the way. They realized that a game box could become THE computer for many people. They did not want to cede that market to Sony. I think they would have been perfectly happy to cede ONLY the game market to Sony.
          • Linux & most home users

            <i>I think for the home, there is a certain class that really only wants email, browser, simple word processing.</i>

            Don't forget kids software: KidPix 3, Disney games, etc.
            Media Whore