Big Blue backout deals potential death blow to Microsoft's NetPC

Is the NetPC a goner? Although I never really doubted the survival of the standalone
PC, I've been keeping an eye on the NetPC and network computer.


NetPC is shorthand for the Microsoft Corp.'Intel Corp. vision of a Network PC, a
crippled client that would run software from servers and over the Internet. It's sort of
an enhanced terminal, priced as low as $600 and too short on storage and memory to run
most of today's software.


The problem, of course, is that you can buy a full 133-MHz Pentium with 16M of memory
and a 1G hard drive for about $900, which makes the NetPC less than an attractive
alternative.


The only things the NetPC ever had going for it were potential cost-of-ownership
savings and easier software management. That claim is dubious at best unless you happen to
believe network management is easy.


All you really need to do to make computers easier to manage is stop all the
unnecessary software upgrades.


Despite--or is that with?--the continued NC drumbeat by Oracle Corp.'s chief samurai,
Larry Ellison, the NetPC may have met its death at the hands of IBM Corp., the 600-pound
gorilla of the hardware world.


Earlier this month, Big Blue dropped plans for marketing the NetPCs it recently
exhibited.


Blue bashing may be a sport second in popularity only to Microsoft bashing, but once in
a while it's useful to look back at the history of computing and remember that IBM
invented the PC, the PC XT, the PC AT, most graphics standards and even Microsoft Corp.


Without IBM's decision to buy the forerunner of MS-DOS from Bill Gates, where would his
company be today? Where would Intel be, for that matter?


I don't subscribe to the often repeated and more often mangled George Santayana
quotation that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
Just because people repeat it a lot doesn't make it true.


Where IBM leads, a lot of people follow. A telling comment in the computer business is:
"Nobody ever got fired for recommending IBM, although OS/2 may be a different
matter."


Now that IBM has killed off internal plans for the NetPC, how much future does the
computer have? Remember that IBM's hottest profit center is in consulting and support. Is
that why it decided to kill off the supposedly easier-to-support NetPC?


It's far too soon to pronounce the NetPC dead, but it certainly is on the critical
list--despite continuing support from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway
2000 Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others.


After squandering massive amounts of goodwill and a basically sound set of
business-oriented features by failing to keep up with customer needs, H&R Block has
finally found a buyer for the CompuServe online service.


In fact, it found two buyers, one of which is America Online. My personal 27-year
CompuServe membership will terminate the day its members are forced to move to the
chronically terrible e-mail service provided by AOL, so I hope that doesn't happen soon.


CompuServe and MCI Mail are mostly backup services for me. I need alternatives to get
e-mail out when my local Internet provider goes down for a couple of hours. The many
government users of AOL and CompuServe probably subscribe for the same reason, so the
question for many of us is how soon CompuServe's reasonably dependable e-mail will be
merged with AOL's hopeless service.


On the other hand, if AOL finds a way to integrate a big chunk of CompuServe's network
hardware, it might just solve many of its recent access problems. Even so, I won't rush to
join AOL, assuming that the Justice Department decides not to block this buy as
anticompetitive.


The good news is that, for the time being, AOL apparently is going to operate
CompuServe as a separate unit, keeping it pretty much the same.


I recently reviewed the handheld Apple Newton MessagePad 2000 pen computer [GCN, July
14, Page 46] and found it did a fine job, even with my scribbling that's so bad I could
have been a doctor if I could stand the sight of blood.


GCN readers might be interested to know that Apple Computer Inc.'s temporary chief
executive officer, Steve Jobs, has decided not to spin off the Newton division from Apple
and instead will target the Newton for the education market.


This could be the best move Apple has made in five years. The worst recent move was the
way Jobs killed off the Macintosh clone business--the only growth area for the Mac.


The Mac is great but irrelevant for most government agencies. Jobs' policy will do
nothing to resurrect it. This ain't rocket science, folks. Apple is imploding, Intel is
exploding. Just look at the numbers.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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