Guest column: Network computing just won't die

Johnny said teasingly, "It's coming to get you, Barbara," recalling the opening scene from Night of the Living Dead.

"Stop it, Johnny!" Barbara snapped.

"Ah, but you came here to dance on the grave of network computing, Barbara. The dead don't take kindly to being treated like that," John continued, imitating the voice of Boris Karloff.

Barbara scoffed. But as she turned away from her brother, she did notice an unusual bulge in the moss-covered ground three graves to her left. Then to her right, she saw the loosely packed dirt of another grave crumble upward as a deteriorating hand broke through to the surface.

Johnny wasn't joking. The cadavers of network computing were truly rising from their graves. It was -- bum pum pum; sound of screams muffled by the thickening fog; cue announcer's voice with excessive reverb -- "The technology that wouldn't die!"

So where are these reanimated cadavers, the evidence that network computing lives? Everywhere. Remember that network computing doesn't necessarily mean Java terminals. It means networked appliances.

With that in mind, take a look at all the recent announcements about self-describing software and devices. Sun Microsystems' Jini is the most visible of these technologies, and perhaps the most promising. Jini is a derivative of Java object technology. It is meant to provide a relatively easy way for manufacturers to create appliances that work together without the customer's intervention.

In IT computing terms, that means Jini eliminates the need for platform-specific device drivers. If you plug a Jini-equipped printer, camera, and disk drive into a network, Jini allows them to discover one another and figure out how to use each other's services. For example, the camera will automatically know how to save pictures to the disk drive, or print the photographs using the printer.

IBM recently announced it is preparing a piece that it claims is missing in Jini. IBM calls it the Mobile Document Application Language (Modal). IBM describes Modal as a way to enable one Jini-connected device to exploit the most sophisticated features of another. I'm not sure if I fully understand yet what Modal brings to the table, but the move by IBM reaffirms the trend towards intelligent, self-describing, networked appliances.

Even Microsoft has jumped on the interoperable appliance bandwagon, though it isn't specifically supporting Jini. Microsoft instead announced that it will deliver a specification for Universal Plug and Play.

So far, my money is on Jini, regardless of whether Modal flies or flops. Everything I've read about Jini makes sense from a programmer's perspective, right down to its lease-based garbage collection. Imagine a digital video disc (DVD) player that talks to an amplifier via Jini. The DVD player leases time with that amplifier so that the amplifier knows how to use the player as long as you're listening to music. When the DVD is done playing music, it simply stops renewing the lease. The lease eventually expires, and the amplifier cleans up the programming garbage left behind.

But most of all, Jini gets my vote because it is platform neutral. It is easy for IT folks to underestimate the importance of platform neutrality because many of us tend to see everything in terms of operating systems or computers. But recall that networked appliances will cover a tremendous amount of territory, including cheap, disposable consumer devices. Imagine a frozen dinner with a miniature disposable chip that tells any microwave or toaster oven how to cook that meal.

Microsoft hasn't released its specification yet, but I have a feeling the only way Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play will lead to this future is if we agree to put Windows in every appliance. I shudder at the implications. "Your television has discovered a VCR and is installing the software for it. You must reboot to complete the installation. Rebooting. Your television has performed an illegal operation and will shut down. Because your television was not properly shut down, one or more of your devices may have errors on it. To avoid seeing this message at least four times daily, buy a television with software that doesn't crash all the time."

Ah, if only real error messages were that honest.

Send your platform-neutral mail to former consultant and programmer Nicholas Petreley at, and visit his forum at

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