Dec. 21, 2004
Ellison's idea of simple computing challenges the PC-centric thinking of Microsoft, and is spreading to other companies.

Four years ago, Oracle Corp. Chairman Larry Ellison made the then-outlandish prediction that by the year 2000 there would be more nonpersonal computer devices accessing the Internet than PCs. At the time, Ellison, who was boldly promoting a new concept called the Network Computer, also predicted that the new devices would cost $200 or less. At a time when people and businesses were shelling out $2,500 or more for desktop and laptop PCs, Ellison's pronouncements seemed the words of one who was promoting more a vision than a likely reality. And keep in mind, Ellison's prognostications were accompanied by equal amounts of Microsoft-bashing. The outspoken Oracle chief foresaw a weakening of Microsoft Corp.'s dominance as the world shifted to more of a network- and Internet-centric view than a desktop-PC view. As they say, the rest was history. Much of what Ellison foresaw happening either did happen, or is likely to take place soon. Sure, no one calls their PalmPilots from Palm Computing Inc. or their cell phones manufactured by Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp. "network computers," but, in fact, that's what they are rapidly becoming. At the Oracle OpenWorld '99 customer conference in mid-November in Los Angeles, 18,000 people heard Ellison crow over his vision coming true. "The network computer now costs $199," Ellison told the jam-packed crowd at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Demonstrating one of the new machines, he pointed out that it follows the game machine model; i.e., it can be plugged into any monitor, and it contains a CD/ROM player. "We're just booting up a CD/ROM," he said, adding that upgrades can be accomplished simply by switching CDs. "If you can take Ella Fitzgerald off your CD player and plug in Miles Davis, you can upgrade this computer." The whole idea, of course, is simplicity and ease of use, two things that have never been Microsoft's -- nor the PC's -- long suit. Ellison is dead right when he says people in business and at home want ease of use and functionality, not difficulty and complexity. "I think we want computers that are easier to use and less expensive," Ellison says. "We want a low-cost appliance to access information on a network." That's one reason the Internet is so powerful -- it's easy to use. As Ellison puts it, "Today the Internet is slowly shoving the PC off center stage." Still, Microsoft doesn't get it. The company keeps on building grander and more complex versions of Windows, the next one being Windows 2000, already late and due out sometime next year. Central to the strategy of Microsoft is making the PC more powerful, Ellison explains. He calls this a "colossal mistake" by Microsoft. The move toward greater simplicity and ease of use can't be underestimated. In fact, it's the way of the future for all forms of computing. Apple Computer figured this out in mid-1998, and now is riding the wave of the Web, selling millions of its multicolored iMacs. People are buying them not only because they're attractive, but because they make it easy to connect to the Internet in a matter of minutes, right out of the box. Wall Street certainly thinks Apple got it right, pushing the computer manufacturer's shares up by a factor of three, from a low of about $30 a year ago to more than $90 per share in recent weeks. Another big high-tech company that suddenly got religion when it comes to simplicity is SAP AG. Last spring the world's leading enterprise software firm completely redesigned both the graphic look of its applications and the way business people go about using its software. Even SAP co-chairman Hasso Plattner said he found his company's software too difficult to use. SAP's redesigned software, Plattner believes, will force its competitors to follow their lead. "We will drive our competitors crazy," he said. "They will have to improve their design, or they won't sell any software." "We will never go back to character-based screens or gray screens," Plattner continued. "We are the Armani of the software world. We want to be the best-looking business application in the world." SAP also is working with Motorola and other companies to enable users of its software to connect via cell phones, PalmPilots and other Internet-access devices. For instance, Motorola's PageWriter 2000 two-way pager features a built-in keyboard that allows users to type and send complete messages. Data can be viewed on the pager's high-resolution graphical screen. With add-on software, the unit can be customized to run a broad range of business applications, including sales automation, financial data, and medical data. SAP is working with Motorola to enable the pager to connect with its portal so that business people can connect with their R/3 data. SAP also is moving toward the network-centric world that Ellison described. The company is working with several outsourcing partners such as Electronic Data Systems, AT&T, Deutsche Telecom, France Telecom, and British Telecom. "They will provide SAP applications over the network," Plattner said. Regarding the network-centric approach, he added, "I totally agree with the CEO of Oracle." Bartholomew is an IW senior editor based in San Francisco.

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