The $500 Network Computer and Education

David D. Thornburg, Ph.D.
Thornburg Center

The hype

In an era where technological leadership has the life span of a Mayfly, none of us was surprised when Oracle's Larry Ellison ( and Sun's Scott McNealy ( announced the potential for a $500 "Network Computer" (or "NC" as it is now known).

This technological marvel was going to change life as we knew it: It would become a powerful tool in our informational arsenal and bring the miracles of the Web to the majority of Americans who think a space bar is a snack food served on shuttle flights.

While 30% of our homes are equipped with computers, only a fraction of those are wired to the Web. The NC would change all that. By providing easy access to the Web, Java applets, and the other info-goodies we early adopters are growing to know and love, McNealy and Ellison hoped to send a Shockwave through the industry, and to the Prince of Redmond, specifically.

As the idea began to spread that the Sun just might set on the Gatesian universe, the pundits pecked out their opinions regarding NC's. The broadsides bellowing chastisements against the concept were numerous. Even otherwise intelligent commentators like Stewart Alsop ( had something negative to say about the network appliance.

Bill Gates ( initially declared the idea idiotic - until he realized that there was a way for him to make money from it - and he now seems content to sip from his cup of Java while pondering his next move.

The main arguments against the NC fell into a few predictable categories.

First was the notion that this was a tool for moving headlong into the past - a retrograde shift to the era of the "dumb terminal" and the "glass teletype." By suggesting that the heavy lifting would be done on centralized remote servers, detractors argued that the NC was nothing but a move back to the mainframe era.

What they missed was that the servers were not going to be doing much of the computing. Java programs would be shipped to the user's computer (just as they are today) where they would run on the local processor.

The time-shared mainframe spectre had died long ago, but some writers felt it was now limping back to life.

They are wrong.

Other detractors argued that, "If we can make a PC that retails for $500, why haven't we already done it?"

Again, this misses the nature of the NC. Its job is not to run bloatware, but to access the Web. A few custom chips can handle this task quite well, and still provide the functionality found in the latest versions of Netscape ( with a folder full of plug-ins.

Will it run Word 6.0? Of course not, but neither will my PowerPC. The unholy alliance of Gates and Grove has conspired to insure that any computer you purchase will appear ungainly within six months so you can justify getting a new one.

The argument I find most interesting (and most relevant to education) is that "People won't give up their PC's to use these devices."

Darned right they won't. Guess what, I won't give up my watch to use a toaster. I won't give up my car to use a fountain pen. In other words, the NC isn't designed to replace a PC - it is a beast of a different color altogether, and they both have a place in the world.

The confusion is easy to understand, however, since the PC is a versatile enough device to transform itself into anything we wish - a word processor, a drawing tool, a fax machine, and (increasingly) our gateway to the Web.

There are lots of circumstances for which a specific single-purpose machine can have tremendous utility - enough utility to justify its purchase. For example, I have a fax machine in my office, even though I also have fax software on my computer. I find the fax machine worthwhile because I'm not willing to tie up my $3,000 desktop machine for a function served quite well by a $300 fax.

As you'll see, this argument has great validity when exploring the role of the NC in education, but more on that later.

Suffice it to say that the NC detractors are confused. Their eyeballs, reddened by reading the rantings from Redmond, just can't see the future as clearly as they otherwise might.

Fortunately, we've been here before, and that is a story worth telling.

Sony's story

Shortly after the NC concept hit the streets, I asked one of our associates, Dr. Lynell Burmark, what she thought about it. Her response was that the NC was like the Sony Walkman - a useful device in its own right, but not one that eliminated the need for full-featured tape recorders.

The Walkman story has assumed epic proportions. It starts in 1979. As legend has it, Sony's leader, Akio Morita, strongly promoted the idea of a tape player that people could carry with them at all times to listen to pre-recorded tapes through headphones.

The rest of the management team fought the concept. This inexpensive device couldn't record, and it didn't even have a loud-speaker (meaning that only one person could use it at a time.)

Mr. Morita made a deal: 10,000 of the units would be made with the understanding that he would personally buy any unsold units at the end of one year.

The rest (as they say) is history. The Walkman was an incredible success right out of the gate. Competitors entered the market almost immediately, and the pre-recorded audio tape business quickly grew to the point where it finally eclipsed the sale of vinyl phonograph records - a position maintained until a few years ago when tapes were outsold by CD's.

A bold decision on Morita's part created a mega-billion-dollar industry from whole cloth.

Sony (, meanwhile, continued to sell tape recorders - more expensive devices that had a different set of features. Their recording equipment is quite good - we use Sony recorders in our studio.

Sony found a way to have two completely different categories of audio tape products at different price points without having the less-expensive line cannibalize the more expensive one. They showed that the market wanted both-and, not either-or.

I believe same thing will happen for NC's, and for NC's in schools in particular.

A plan for schools

Schools have a problem. Technology money is hard to come by, and technology is changing so fast that buying a computer is a lot like getting ice sculpture in July: It starts losing value the second you put it in the trunk of your car.

I've been asked whether schools should stop buying $2,000 PC's and start planning their future around the $500 NC's.

In my opinion, schools will probably want to invest in three kinds of computing equipment.

The first tier is represented by a few high-end machines that lend credence to the notion that you can never be too thin, or have too much RAM. These workhorses should be reserved for the media intensive tasks of image capture and editing, sound and movie editing, and other chores for which blinding speed is essential. One of these machines will need to be set aside as the site's Intranet server.

These few computers might best be located in a media lab, or some other place where they can be accessed by students and staff as they are needed. Once the media elements are created, they are then stored on the server where they can be accessed from the classroom or home through the school's network.

The second tier of computers can be less powerful, but husky enough to handle multimedia authoring tools like Hyperstudio (, as well traditional word processors and other educational applications. These machines, perched at LAN's end, can access the previously edited media elements and function as a gateway for the posting of student work to the Intranet and beyond.

Finally, we have the NC. This device would be used for its intended purpose - as a gateway to research using the Web. NC's will probably have other features, especially the capacity to save the results of a Web session for transfer to a more powerful computer for use in preparing a report or working on a project.

I expect these devices to become ubiquitous.

An interesting question I've been pondering relates to what they will look like.

Visions of the Network Computer

There seem to be two schools of thought concerning the physical appearance of the NC. The first (and dominant) view is that it will look like a TV on a pizza box - in other words, it will look like its current cousin, the PC. A variant of this is the video game format promoted by the Apple/Bandai Pippin technology ( This variant, built around the concept of Web as thumb candy, takes advantage of the user's current TV.

On one hand, this view has merit. Find/SVP ( has reported a 35% drop in television viewing by adult Internet users, so this version of the NC might get them back on the couch.

There are two serious problems with this view, however. First, unlike television programs, Web pages are designed to be viewed from a distance of 18 inches, not six feet. Second, as anyone who has tried to read movie credits on a TV set can attest, American televisions are ill-suited for any textual material. On top of that, we are so used to "watching" television and "using" computers that any attempt to combine the passive seating style for one activity with the active interacting style of the other will be disequilibrating. How would you like to create a spreadsheet on a projection television using a video game controller? I'd rather navigate a car through downtown Boston with a ship's compass.

At least the Pippin has a video connector for a traditional computer monitor along with an ADB bus for a keyboard. This box can co-exist in both the entertainment and computer worlds in its present design.

There is another choice, however, and that is the creation of a NC that looks nothing like a standard PC.

Imagine Apple's Newton with a wireless modem from Megahertz ( or Motorola ( running a compact Web browser (, and the NC has an entirely new look. A Net Computer just might be a pocket-sized device that lets users hunt and gather on the Internet from the shade of a oak tree, unencumbered by the twin cords of power and telecommunications that hold our PC's to their desks like some leviathan Gulliver tied to the ground in Lilliput.

Apple's genius (whether it knows it or not) is that, through Pippin and Newton, it has placed NC bets in both camps - one of which is sure to bear fruit.

I think that, while both forms of NC's will emerge in the next year or so, the highly portable one will prove the most valuable for education. With these tools, students will arrive in class with the world in their backpacks. They'll gather information on the tides of Jupiter from compact information appliances hidden behind the massive textbooks that still define "information" in all too many of our schools.

Wise educators will see the opportunity to move from a community based on teaching to one based on learning. They will find, once their charges have mastered the art of mining the riches of the informational universe, that their skills will be needed to help students make meaning from the infoglut of the Net. They will find rejuvenation in the task of helping learners develop wisdom as they prepare to lead us all into the next century.

No matter what physical forms the NC takes, education will benefit. The Web has broken the Gutenbergian stranglehold of information. The power of the press went to those that owned them, and soon the NC will bring power to us all.

Note: Every effort was expended to prepare this report using the best information available at the time. Some information may have changed by the time you read this report. Please secure independent verification of any information used in this report before making investment decisions.

The Thornburg Center and its associates may or may not hold a position in some of the companies mentioned in this report. We do not vouch for the suitability of any of the mentioned technologies or companies for investment. For investment advice please contact your broker.

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