‘A PC is a ridiculous device.” So Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison raged 20 years ago in September 1995, in a warm-up speech at an analyst conference in Paris ahead of Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates.
Gates had just launched Windows 95. It quickly became clear that the dominant computing device would be the PC running Microsoft software. Ellison also realised that Microsoft had begun to explore a move into the database sector, and hence was poised to become a deeply- pocketed threat to Oracle’s core business.
In his speech prior to Gates taking the stage, Ellison prophesied the “post-PC era”. There would be a new device, the “network computer”. It would be a low- cost ($500), simple-to-use (unlike the PC) and bare-bones machine that would serve just one purpose: to connect you to the internet. All that complex software – word processing, spreadsheets, email, web browsing, games – that used to run on PCs would instead now run on high-performance computer servers, managed by Oracle. Consumers would simply plug into these big machines across the internet, from their elegant and simple network computers.
Among others – such as Marc Andreessen of Netscape and Louis Gerstner of IBM – Eric Schmidt, chief technology officer (CTO) at Sun Microsystems, was intrigued by the concept. Under Schmidt, Sun began developing a stripped-down system to run on the new network computer. He observed: “The implications are serious: if this takes off, it will have enormous impact.”
Move the clock forward 20 years to today. Ellison is now combined executive chairman and CTO of Oracle. Gates has retired but is a part-time technical advisor to Satya Nadella, the Microsoft chief executive. Schmidt is executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. And the “post-PC era” is definitely upon us.
The “network computer” ultimately failed when, for a combination of reasons, Oracle abandoned it in 1999. However, Ellison’s vision of cloud computing – running applications on huge “farms” of computer servers across the internet, rather than on desk PCs – is now dominant. His complementary vision of a simple internet connection device, a lightweight, low-cost cloud computing client, is still plausible if not particularly popular. The Google Chromebook (available in various forms from Acer, HP, Samsung and others) is the leading example.