Oracle chief touts network computer

If Larry Ellison has his way there will be a network computer in every American home. And these small easy-to-use systems costing about $500 will be the primary means of communication between government agencies and citizens.

Ellison chief executive officer of Oracle Corp. is a proponent of a new computing paradigm in which NCs would replace PCs. NCs would handle only a few applications: e-mail World Wide Web browsing word processing simple spreadsheets and presentation graphics. With little local processing power or storage NCs would download software from and store files to servers over a network. Data-encryption technology would ensure security. Overall the NC would be easier to use than a videocasette recorder.

The idea of the NC is to eliminate the complexity - and cost - of owning and operating a PC. A PC costs $8 000 a year for an organization to own including training support and infrastructure according to Ellison. Agencies could reduce their computing expenses significantly by switching to NCs he said.

"Government agencies could save a fortune by switching to NCs " Ellison said at a recent press briefing in Washington D.C. "NCs allow you to reduce the complexity at the desktop and return the complexity to the network and the server."

Agencies should consider giving NCs to citizens if the technology could help them provide better service at lower cost Ellison said. He cited examples such as the U.S. Postal Service giving NCs to all citizens as it transitions from regular mail to e-mail. The Social Security Administration could give NCs to doctors for Medicare and Medicaid proc-essing as a way of eliminating paperwork and improving efficiency he said.

Oracle has proposed specifications for three configurations of NCs: a desktop version a TV set top box and a telephone version. The NC family of products all would conform with Internet standards including Hypertext Markup Language and Java. Oracle would license the NC designs and system software to manufacturers. Ellison predicted that the NC paradigm will become a reality in the next 18 months.

The initial NC prototype was a slimmed down version of today's top-of-the-line PCs. It used a 32-bit reduced instruction set computing chip called the ARM 7500 processor and had 4M of memory a network interface input/output interfaces and a network connection. Network standards supported by the prototype included 28.8 megabit/sec modems Ethernet 25 megabit/sec Asynchronous Transfer Mode high-speed T-1 telephone lines and Integrated Services Digital Network. The NC could connect to keyboards mice joysticks and other input devices as well as smart cards.

The NC concept has gotten some support from other computer companies including Apple Computer Inc. Sun Microsystems Inc. Netscape Communications Corp. and IBM Corp. Other vendors including Sega and Sony Electronics Inc. are pursing similar devices on their own. These companies Ellison said are missing the point because they are too focused on the device itself rather than the server and networking technology behind it.

"The real challenge isn't building the appliance. The real challenge is building the server server software and networking software that runs the infrastructure " he said adding that this is where Oracle plans to be. "Oracle's core competency is managing enormous amounts of data and making it accessible securely and reliably " he explained.

Workers are likely to be displaced if agencies move to the NC paradigm Ellison conceded. At USPS for example NCs would significantly reduce the amount of mail and therefore the number of mail carriers needed. "There will be dislocation in the government because of the Information Age but there's incredible promise that government can be more efficient with this technology " he said.

One reason NCs are likely to be more successful than earlier video-on-demand and interactive-TV proposals is that they use existing bandwidth: the Internet. When asked about projections that the Internet will run out of bandwidth soon Ellison retorted that the Internet backbone is "90 percent available. The problem is in the last mile to the home." He predicted that telephone companies will replace today's Internet service providers and build bigger pipes to the home.

On other issues Ellison predicted that Microsoft Corp.'s strategy of giving away Web browsers for free and bundling Web server software with their operating system will put Netscape out of business. "Netscape will be wiped out " he said. "They have no chance whatsoever against Microsoft."

But he did warn that the government should consider the antitrust implications of Microsoft's Internet strategy. "I'm not sure the government believes that Netscape is doomed " he said.

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