Network computing hits home

For almost two years now, a coalition of companies -- led by Oracle Corp. and its chairman, Lawrence Ellison -- have pitched the idea of the network computer as the last great hope to escape Microsoft Corp.

For almost two years now, a coalition of companies -- led by Oracle Corp. and its chairman, Lawrence Ellison -- have pitched the idea of the network computer as the last great hope to escape Microsoft Corp.'s dominance of the PC market.

"The information age will never be realized if only a chosen few are allowed to participate," Ellison said in a statement kicking off the May merger of set-top software maker Navio Communications Corp. and Oracle subsidiary Network Computer, Inc.

Yet while Ellison and company have been hammering out the technology for network computers, a box that boasts all the functionality of an NC has hit the home. And guess who's got it?

Microsoft.

Or more specifically, WebTV Networks, Inc. The Microsoft subsidiary launched its newest set-top box for the home, called WebTV Plus, at the end of September -- overshadowing NCI's announcement 24 hours earlier of its network computer for the home.

The vote is now in: WebTV looks to be on its way to being the first prevalent NC for the home.

"Funny, isn't it," said Harry Fenik, an analyst at Internet researcher Zona Research Inc. "WebTV has all the makings of a network computer. Everything that it does is done on the network -- the box is only used for viewing. And it's from Microsoft."

WebTV's newest box -- available from Sony Corp. and Philips Electronics N.V. this month -- will cost about $300, be able to use productivity apps on a remote server, and can be connected to a printer.

The box also has a slot for a smart card for storing subscriber information. The vision: Users can plug their card into any WebTV box (say in a mall or hotel) and get their mail and data routed to them. Very NC.

All this, say analysts, makes it a network computer. "WebTV is definitely the first example of a network computer for the home," said Gerry Kaufhold, senior multimedia analyst at market researcher In-Stat. "In about nine months the combination of Microsoft, WebTV and Comcast will deliver a (faster connection to the box), and we will really see WebTV take off."

According to the latest numbers from WebTV, the service currently counts 150,000 subscribers -- three times the number it had in April of this year. Steve Perlman, president and co-founder WebTV, forecast that number would reach 250,000 by year's end. The Palo Alto, Calif., company was acquired by Microsoft in August.

What happened to Ellison's vision? Too much time hammering out the details and not enough time thinking up a product, says Zona's Fenik. "Oracle and Sun have handicapped themselves in a way," he said. "They have set technology boundaries that Microsoft does not have." By press time, Network Computer, Inc. could not make representatives available for comment.

So far WebTV and Microsoft have done it right.