Vendors Debate Where Network Clients are Headed

LOS ANGELES (04/10/2000) - Panelists at Network World's Internet Client of the Future debate last week were in "violent agreement," as one of them put it, that the center of gravity is shifting fast from Windows PCs to . . . well, something else.

The Internet World 2000 panel included representatives from Palm Inc., Sun Microsystems, VA Linux Systems and Wireless Knowledge Inc. They outlined their visions, which focused on a range of client operating systems as well as devices of various shapes and sizes that seemed inconceivable a few years ago when the Windows PC essentially defined personal computing.

The panelists predicted the rise of "personalized computing" based on devices that let users access or receive via a browser just the Web-based data and applications they need for a particular task, at a specific time, even in a certain location. One of the chief disagreements among the panelists was whether users needed applications and data actually running on these devices, and if so, how much.

Panelists also were divided over what kinds of devices will dominate.

"People have said to us, 'the smart [Web-enabled] phone vendors will kill Palm,' " said William Maggs, newly appointed chief technology officer at Palm, the handheld device maker. "That's not going to happen. We're visual animals."

He argued the wireless Internet is of a different nature than wireless voice services. "The wireless Internet eventually will be freed from a comparison with telephony," Maggs said.

Sunil Marangoly, senior business strategy manager for Sun's SunRay thin clients, held up a credit-card sized "smart card" he uses to access all his applications and data on Sun's network. He swipes the card through a reader attached to any SunRay thin client and is free to work once the network authenticates him.

"Your whole office becomes accessible to you, no matter where you are, because you have access to information about you, your applications and your data," he said.

The "device independence" Marangoly discussed is important, Maggs agreed. But Maggs insisted many users will want, or need, information residing on the device.

But the panelists' rosy predictions hinge on the availability of Web-based services, pointed out audience member Jeremy Millar, a developer with e-commerce software vendor Bowstreet. His company defines these as any kind of business function that is wrapped in XML so it can interact with any client device or with another service. XML is a standard that describes how data can be represented and shared through a Web page.

Millar's comments drew enthusiastic support from VA Linux's Chris DiBona, the company's Linux evangelist. "XML: Go for it. It will make things so much easier," he said. When another user said his company wanted to create Web interfaces for all company applications, DiBona told him, "XML will save your life."

But even Internet standards are adding to client confusion, said Randy Salo, vice president of engineering at Wireless Knowledge, the Microsoft and Qualcomm joint venture focused on middleware for linking wireless devices to corporate data. "There's a huge amount of discontinuity due to different markup languages," he said.

Web services don't have to be complicated, said Maggs, who cited services available to Palm VII wireless device users. Palm VII users have built-in access to Palm.Net, a Web site run by Palm, with content from an array of partners.

But DiBona argued Palm could only offer a carefully managed subset of information. "As new devices come out, people will not want to be limited," he said, chanting "XML, XML, XML."

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