Scott David Scheuer
M.S.A. Educational Leadership Program
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Sun and Oracle, two of Silicon Valley's innovator companies, have introduced a new stripped-down computing device called a network computer. This computer will sell for less than $500 and connect to all types of readily available computer networks. The new computers use the popular programming language, Java, a much simplified, leaner operating system than the prevalent Wintel systems. The current target audience for this type of computer is the business market, but with the need for simpler, more cost effective systems in education, that could change quickly.
The primary difference between network computers and conventional PCs lies in where data and applications are stored. With conventional PCs, large hard drives, CD-ROMs and floppy disks archive vast quantities of information along with application tools. In contrast, the network computer gets its vast storage capacity directly from the Internet. The applications (called applets) also come from sources on the Internet. Network computers may take on different shapes and uses. Currently, phone-type and TV "set-top" network computers are rapidly appearing in the technology marketplace.
Microsoft, the software company that has virtually held a stranglehold on the PC software industry since its inception, initially wrote off the network computer last year. The announcement by Sun and Oracle, two arch-rivals of Bill Gates and Microsoft, combined with the relative sluggishness of the PC market and the explosion of users on the Internet, have gotten Microsoft's attention. Microsoft announced one day ahead of the Sun and Oracle media blitz that they were developing a Windows-based network computer for $1,000, but so far their entry in the market has been vaporware (nowhere to be found).
One of the advantages of the network computer is significantly lower maintenance costs. The "hidden" cost of a personal computer lies in the software required to accomplish tasks and the hardware upgrades necessary to run these faster, memory-hungry programs. A network computer automatically loads the latest version of prerequisite software the user needs to accomplish his/her task.
The number of households online in Canada and the US in 1995 were 9.6 million. In 1996 it leaped to 15.4 million and, by the year 2000, is projected to rise to 38.2 million (Jackson, 1996). A low-cost network computer has the potential to significantly increase the number of computers in use.
The implications of a low-cost easy-to-use, basic maintenance network computer in education are huge. The education sector has the same problems with software and hardware obsolescence as the business sector. Network computing offers educators the potential to address many of the prickly problems educators have struggled with recently.
Proliferation of computers in the classroom - Network computers are one third the cost of a current personal computer with a minimal software investment. A network computer boom could benefit the classroom with these computers tied to the Internet and school system reference resources. However, subscribers fees may mean an annual subscription cost to schools.
School/Home Communications - The proliferation of low-cost network computers in the home could open the possibility of creative online tutor programs, online help, assignment forums, weekly school and class newsletters. Parent/teacher/student communications will certainly benefit.
Simplicity of maintenance - This is currently an Achilles heel of the personal computer. The tremendous strides in computer speed, memory increases and user friendly software (which used more and more processing and storage memory) are extremely difficult to keep up with. This problem is two-fold since the computer requires constant hardware upgrading as well as continuous software training. Training can also be integrated into the software coming from the provider.
Computer for the "Common Man/Woman" - Network computer pricing makes computing and all its benefits significantly more attainable for a larger segment of society. With virtually every household connected by telephone, cable or satellite television signals, everyone benefits.
Online Textbooks - The money funneled into the current textbook black hole could be used to offset the proliferation of the "one-per-student" computer in schools or the dissemination of computers to homes (distributed learning). Instead of assigning textbooks every year, the school assigns a network computer.
Keep a careful eye on this emerging new market; it could have tremendous benefits for educators and home users.
Jackson, David S. (1996, November 11). New kids on the block. Time , p. 55.