Petreley's column: Network Computing sneaking into the fore

It's hard to believe that it has been about three years since Larry Ellison began hyping Oracle's Network Computer. Since then, the NC has been largely a topic non grata in the trade press. Almost everyone hates the idea of an NC. Count me as an exception. And I think you can include the charming fellow below, Bob Metcalfe, too.

In fact, Bob nailed the appeal of the NC perfectly in a column on last November, "Wanted: A Webtop service that will help to enable my PC to NC transition." Like me, Bob would rather carry around a log-in name than a PC.

The chatter about NCs has died down during the past year, but the evidence that we are moving toward a network computing world continues to mount. Here's what I believe constitutes such evidence: software that is Internet-standards based, server-centric, and accessible via a Web browser.

Internet Messaging Access Protocol 4 (IMAP4)-based e-mail services are increasing in popularity, and they fit two of the criteria -- Internet standards-based and server-centric. IMAP4 allows you to store all your mail and folders on the server, all of which you can manage from anywhere on the Internet. Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange both provide IMAP4 services, more or less.

I have been playing with a lesser-known IMAP4 server called CommuniGate Pro by Stalker Software (www.stalker.com). I'm running it on Linux, but it is available for several platforms including Microsoft Windows NT, FreeBSD, Sun Solaris, and even Apple Mac OS X.

So far I'm very impressed. It was a breeze to install and configure, and it fits all three network computing criteria. A great deal of this product is Web-based, including the ability to administer the server via a Web browser.

And it has a built-in capability of providing Web-based access to e-mail accounts. This means your users can run a true IMAP4 client (such as Netscape Messenger, Microsoft Outlook Express, or Eudora Pro) when it is most likely to be available, such as at the office, or from any full-featured client on the Internet. But when your users are on the road and all they have available is a browser, they can still view and manage their e-mail via the Web, the same way one might do it using a service such as Hotmail.

Speaking of which, these days we take free Web-based e-mail so much for granted that it's easy to forget it is a prime example of network computing. But have you noticed how many free browser-based calendars have cropped up? These are an even more obvious application of network computing. Daytimers (www.daytimers.com) is one of the most well-known, so check it out if you want to get an idea of how it works. I personally prefer When's Web calendar (www.when.com). I find it quicker and easier to use. If you're not comfortable having your users put their schedules on a Web calendar, you can put a Web-based interface on a number of commercial products such as Lotus Notes.

Yet another type of free Web service has sprouted -- online meetings. ActiveTouch has come up with a very clever site called WebEx (www.webex.com). You create an online meeting and invite others. To join, all you need is a unique meeting number that you get when you start the meeting. (Actually, you also need a small plug-in that is automatically downloaded the first time you visit.) Then you can chat with the users who join the meeting and collaborate on documents.

You can share any document for which you have an application. For example, I recently used the WebEx service to collaborate on a WordPerfect 8 document. WebEx uses a very clever technique to work this miracle. It launches whatever application you used to create the document and prints the document through a special WebEx printer driver. This driver essentially exports the document to a collaborative document format that can be transferred over the Internet quickly -- and it switches your application back to its default printer when it is done.

Granted, the WebEx document viewer doesn't let you edit spreadsheet cells or modify text. But it lets you and everyone else in the meeting mark up the document, take notes, and then save the collective results as you might with a whiteboard program.

So do you agree network computing is sneaking its way into the mainstream?

Former programmer and consultant, Nicholas Petreley can be reached at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.

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