December 03, 2003

Is Network Computing Dead?

The bright spot in the network-computing picture may be in service data objects.

Is Network Computing Dead?

By Russell Shaw
NewsFactor Network
December 3, 2003

The bright spot in the network-computing picture may be in service data objects, a type of technology that BEA Systems and IBM are supporting to help developers create enterprise applications that will run on both of their platforms.

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If network computing is to survive, it must adapt to the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce and reinvent itself as a lower-cost architecture that embraces a wide range of data objects.

The stakes could not be higher. As an enterprise technology, as well as a business model, network computing is in dire straits.

Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) -- the company at the epicenter of what some view as a technology disaster -- has been undergoing hard times. For the third quarter of 2003, revenues declined 8 percent to US$2.54 billion. Over the same period, net losses were $286 million, up from $111 million in the second quarter of this year.

In the past, Sun Microsystems banked heavily on thin-client computing. It came out with a Java console -- basically a monitor, keyboard and box -- that communicated with a larger computer to access applications. Yet Sun's concept has not shown staying power -- not only creating doubt about the viability of the company's strategy, but about the future of network computing in general.

You Can Take It with You When You Go

To avoid obsolescence, network computing may need to become more mobile and flexible than the old box-based model typified by Sun's traditional fixed Java console approach. An increasing desire for mobile networked applications on the part of enterprise end-users is largely responsible for the defeat of the box-based Java console, says Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research.

"There are two reasons why network computing is, in fact, 'dead,'" Schadler told NewsFactor. "The first reason is that people like to have processing power that they can take with them. The second is that [this preference] does not make a network computer more valuable [to the enterprise]. It makes a PC, in which you synchronize your applications and run them locally, more valuable."

Resistance Is Futile

Traditional network-computing vendors that do not offer PC-based systems will suffer in such a scenario, Schadler pointed out. The reasons are institutional resistance to shifting from big-ticket product lines, such as network servers, and too few products available to step into the breach and serve mobile users.

If there is a viable future for Sun, and network computing in general, it most likely resides in a mobile-friendly technology model.

Evolution, Not Dissolution

"The concept of virtual access to applications using a network computer is not dead," argues Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president of system software for IDC. "The concept is clearly alive in the form of a PDA having wireless access capabilities or a mobile phone which allows network access," he told NewsFactor. "It is clear that the concept has evolved over time from using a very limited device into other things."

Citrix (Nasdaq: CTXS) Systems, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Tarantella, for example, have adapted to this new reality by offering software that supports mobile access to enterprise data, Kusnetzky said.

SDO May Be the Key

The bright spot in the network-computing picture may be in service data objects (SDO), a type of technology that BEA Systems (Nasdaq: BEAS) and IBM (NYSE: IBM) are supporting in a joint initiative. The two companies want to help developers create enterprise applications that run on both of their platforms.

So far, they have published three royalty-free, Java enterprise-based specifications for both the BEA WebLogic and IBM WebSphere platforms. The specs have been submitted for standardization via the Java Community Process (JCP).

Among the first joint-venture offerings are SDOs designed to simplify and unify the way applications handle data. SDO applications can access data from such sources as relational databases, XML data sources, Web services and information systems.

If the result of this initiative is lower-cost network architectures, adaptable to mobile and land-based user scenarios, then network computing indeed may not be "dead." In fact, at least one analyst believes it is far too soon to toll the bell.

"Thin clients are undergoing a renaissance," says Peter Kastner, chief research officer at Aberdeen Group. "Lower cost of ownership is the appeal with initial users."

Is Network Computing Dead?

Posted by Craig at December 3, 2003 08:20 PM