Monday, August 28, 2006

Was Larry Ellison right? Network computing.

About a decade ago, when Larry Ellison was trying to buy Apple for a song, he was interviewed by Wired or Red Herring about the future of applications. He commented that he thought that network applications and appliances would be the thing of the future. At the time Microsoft was in full swing and the increasingly complex suite of Office products was being updated frequently. Individual productivity seemed to be the trend of computing - create it on your own desktop and then collaborate using the features in the program that allowed one to share.

With Google's introduction of a credible word processing and spreadsheet, which follows earlier versions of similar products in an open source environment, Ellison's vision may be coming true. What makes all of this possible is two things which most people did not recognize at the time. First, the ubiquity of bandwidth continues to expand. As faster and faster connections become not just possible but consistently available, the need to carry all of your stuff together becomes less critical. Second, is the declining price of storage. In the early 1990s a local computer vender was going out of business and was selling 20 megabyte hard drives for $1 per megabyte. I recently decided to install a media storage device in my home network which will, when fully loaded, contain all of my photos (which currently number about 10,000 and increase by 4-5000 per year). I went to my local Fry's and bought a half a terabyte drive for a couple of hundred dollars. Think of a megabyte as 1,000,000 pieces of information - not photographs but individual units of information. A terabyte is 1,000,000,000 pieces. To give you an idea about how much is in a terabyte - 20 of them would be enough to house the printed text contents of the Library of Congress. So I just bought a disk drive to store my photos and other media which is equal to about 1/40 of the Library of Congress. recently housed all of the US Census records on its system from 1790 to 1930 and that consumed 600 terabytes.

Where I think Ellison was not on the mark comes from the inherent human need to add something. The default spreadsheet software for the last decade or more has been Excel by Microsoft. It has a range of great functions and capabilities. But it also has some annoying habits and is visual capabilities - telling a numbers story in a way that non-number oriented people can be comfortable with is limited. When Excel was getting going there was a great competitor called Wingz, it is one of those footnotes of computing that should not be forgotten. Wingz had wonderful capabilities to convert dry numbers into rich pictures. But the product ultimately failed. In the presentation arena there is Microsoft Powerpoint. Again it does a reasonable job at putting together presentations. But it fails in several areas. Along comes Keynote - which is available only for the Macintosh market at this point - which does all sorts of fancy things that Powerpoint could never dream of. As computing begins to migrate out of closed operating systems like Windows toward more Unix based systems (in the Mac world as the company has moved from its Motorola chips to Intel it has created an operating system based on Unix that produces "universal" applications - which can run on a couple of platforms) the possibility for smaller applications that meet individual creativtity needs and are accessible over networks becomes more of a reality.

Ellison based his thoughts on Oracle being the center of the new universe. For a lot of reasons (thankfully) that has not come to pass. But the idea that networks would offer the kind of flexibility that they do today and that they promise in the future seemed quite fantastic just a decade ago.

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