Chromebooks, Network Computing & AI lessons learned

[Reading time 2:30]

Key takeaway: Why did it take two decades for Network Computers to finally arrive? Translating vision into reality can take many decades. The delays are exacerbated when a lot of very difficult, non-obvious collateral-innovation is needed. Same with AI. That will take even longer to mature. Fall for clear immediate business outcomes, not fantastic visions.

The backstory

This holiday season I bought one of my granddaughters an Acer Chromebook to take to school. And I bought it for under $120 US at a special Black Friday sale. (Only slightly more than the 2018-equivalent of $94.00 which, after inflation, is what I paid in 1975 for my $20 Texas Instruments Digital watch with an LED display.)

Bells of surprise rang in my head. 

Network Computers!

The NC (do you remember them?) has finally and definitely arrived. It’s roaring in the student marketplace. Except you may have missed the name change, from Network Computer to Chromebook.

By User:Flibble, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42875942

Back in 1996, Netscape championed the notion of NCs for all. (To be fair, others also jumped on the bandwagon. For example, Larry Ellison of Oracle put some of his own money into another Ellison startup. Sun had its Javastation. IBM launched its Net Station and, in 1997, Apple announced the MAC NC.)

They all had visions of server-based systems meeting all the needs of users and their devices. In Network Computing, the network would be the computer. (Some wags at the time, equated user devices with dumb terminals.) But user’s 3270 or VT200 terminals were no match for the vision of Network Computers.

With Network Computers, the network would manage, control and service the users devices, software and data. NCs would be smart, able to run downloaded code (in sort of the same way modern PCs, MACs and smart phones run downloaded apps.)

It was a heady time

I was driving the Network Computing vision for Gartner and Gartner’s clients. Our expectations included:

  • The older (5 layer) Client-Server (CS) architectures would become obsolete
  • Network Computing architectures would replace them
  • The next generation of enterprise applications would be NC based, not CS based.

The Chromebook is the Network Computer of the current decade!

Timing is everything. The Network Computer didn’t happen in the 90’s or naughts. There were a lot of complimentary innovations missing, including:

  • Adequate user device hardware (CPUs, displays, batteries were all wanting)
  • New user device classes (touch sensitive smart phones, tablets)
  • Communications technologies (LTE, WiFi 802.11ax and, soon, 5g)
  • Servers (including GPUs and TPUs for AI inferencing)
  • Software protocols
  • Application architectures
  • Marketplaces
  • Multi-sided platforms
  • Payment methods

In the autumn of 1999, an email ASP (application service provider) was trying to recruit me as CTO as they rushed to beat the closure of the IPO window. I turned them down. The timing was so wrong, even more wrong than I thought at the time.

In fairness to even older visionaries, Netscape didn’t come up with the notion of “The Network Is the Computer.” Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was using that term in advertising two decades earlier than Netscape. All of which demonstrates that it’s not enough to have:

  • Extremely powerful vision
  • An outstanding set of architects and engineers
  • A commanding position in the market

Visionary success requires breadth, depth and variety of unexpected innovations in diverse areas:

  • Business and technology ecosystems
  • Collateral innovations at the economic, social and technical level
  • Demographic changes (the young are typically less resistant to new ways of doing things)

It takes time, a massive effort and luck! 

Which is one of the fundamental reasons why you should scoff at suggestions that we are going to see “Artificial General Intelligence” anytime soon. Not that people shouldn’t try (as in researchers.) And it’s not that people shouldn’t philosophize or write fictional accounts of what might be. They also should try. But you and I should spend our money where it delivers quick results in the here and now.

Go back and reread the conclusions from my last two blog posts! Follow the five easy criteria and don’t be distracted by Easter Bunny stories.

Disclosure: I have no vested interest in any of the firms or institutions mentioned in this post. Nor does the Analyst Syndicate.

Author: Tom Austin

Clearing the fog and misdirection in emerging technologies world wide. I founded TAG after over 40 years at Gartner, Inc. and DEC. Sought out by the press and executives world wide. In the most recent past, I was Gartner, Inc. lead for Artificial Intelligence research (2012-2018.) Deep background in brain sciences (biological constraints on learning.)

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