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 Will the Real NUI please stand up?

It has been some time since I first read an article by Tom Halfhill in Byte Magazine that portended the rise of the Network User Interface (aka NUI). In fact, that article was written in July, 1997. Tom's article was on target for what was being proposed then as the “Network Computer.”

 (Submitted by Chuck Talk Tue May 11, 2004 )

  Although Sun Microsystems trademark slogan “The Network is the Computer” ™ was not quite a reality then, the advent of broadband communications and services is changing the perception of that eventuality. I would argue that several changes within the technical community have helped to effect the new reality.

First, no matter how you view it, Java is still an important technology that has changed the computing landscape for everyone. Microsoft's Visual J++ which tried to change the public perception of Java did not survive. Java has continued to be a real solution that is growing, despite the often-stated imminent demise of the technology by many who wish it were so. What Java has and continues to contribute is the imporance of cross-platform applications, the write-once, run anywhere applications that represents the true need of the customer.

There were many significant stumbling blocks placed in the way of Java, and there were many significant initiatives that were simply ahead of their time. The Java Desktop System was initially to have been an operating system written entirely in Java. That was something that everyone thought would not happen, and correctly so, for the computing resources of the time were not up to the tasks, and the system was not ready for its delivery to the public.

The second technology that has risen into prominence is free and open source software. Free and Open Source software, for all of the deceptive FUD that is launched against it, is a business enabler. It is also an exponential enhancer to traditional development models for it allows interested parties to add to the development of the products. Further, it allows the cream to rise to the top of the development process because a successful project manager will allow the most skilled developers to add to the project.

What it isn't though, is a model that rewards micro-management. It requires a macro-management view and a skilled artisan who can carefully shepherd a project along its development cycle, knowing when to be diplomatic and when to make tough decisions. It is the role of the successful project manager within the Free and Open Source software community to know when to be a brutal task master and when to be diplomatic.

That task makes it harder for traditional proprietary companies to grasp the technological revolution, and it also seems to befuddle a number of analysts who were quite comfortable with the way things have been in the past. Free software (as in free speech) has turned their world upside down and stood them on their heads. It has made a mockery of the efforts of spending countless hours ingratiating themselves within companies. Now, the product has no single source of contacts. There is a flood of new blood into the system that is not necessarily within their Rolodex.

Free and open source software has changed the playing field, and it has given us the power of traditional proprietary UNIX with the freedom of the GNU GPL and other OSI-approved licenses. While it shares a common UNIX-like structure, it is not UNIX.

What this is all driving toward though, is an interoperable, powerful and modifiable system that actually addresses the customer's needs. It is a sea change in technology, a reversal of fortunes for the customer and their services providers, whether they be VARs, integrators or consultants. This change has enabled the development and customization of customer-centric solutions that go far beyond the possibility of shrinkwrap proprietary solutions.

The rise of free and open source software has given us a foundation upon which to begin to build a real NUI. Perhaps the best recent example of this capability began to come back into my thoughts this week as I began to see real network computing being employed in everyday business use.

At a recent visit to a local physician's office, I saw that instead of a PC connected network, the physicians were actually using a thin-client solution. Basically they were using small terminals to connect to their centralized applications within their offices, and distributing access through local terminals. This is an example of a network computer, and it is a reality available today. That concept is obviously one that makes sense, for thin-clients are much less costly than running complete PC workstations in every examination room.

While the thin-client is a close cousin to the ideal network computing interface, it really isn't a radical departure from existing technology. Such an idea is happening today, though it is certainly something that a lot of people have overlooked or ignored during the ongoing FUD attacks over which operating system is the best.

I am going to make no bones about what I feel is the best operating system. It is a technology that provides the best end-user experience at the best price to the end-user. That means that the end-user is free to make the choice in my opinion. Having said that, I personally choose to use free and open source software, simply because it works for me and allows me the most flexibility. You are free to spend all of your money on someone else's idea of what technology works for you, or you can decide for yourself what works for you. It is your money and your decision to make, and whatever you choose is the right choice for you.

The technology that really began to bring about the idea that a real NUI was within our grasp though, is a descendant from Netscape. It is the technology that is literally flowing freely into the world from The Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla, for those who may not really have grasped its importance, is the first truly network user interface or NUI, that I have seen. Mozilla's applications frameworks are actually building many useful applications today that exist at the browser level.

How far of a stretch is it really to imagine a computing interface wherein the most important applications all exist at that level and where broadband computing makes this all possible? I don't think it is all that much of a strecth anymore. All you have to do is to begin utilizing the Mozilla Foundation's products and projects to begin to see how far they are advancing the browser paradigm into the NUI paradigm.
I would suggest that anyone who is using the old browser technology of Internet Explorer is currently out of date and falling behind rapidly. A simple browse of the Firefox extensions page shows you the many projects that are ongoing, building useful applications and add-ons for the Firefox browser. There are many such projects for all of the Mozilla Foundation projects.

Imagine if that browser work were being added to in ways to deliver applications such as word-processing, spreadsheets, presentations, application and network diagramming and prototyping, and many other ideas that are currently available from expensive standalone applications that are sold piecemeal to the public at great expense. Would that be a welcome change for companies, individuals and governments? If you can be honest about it, and only look at it from a technology standpoint, you know that it is a very powerful model.

For all of the desktop computing needs, and all of the storage that I have, I certainly can see the potential of less costly and less power-consumptive models of computing. The real NUI occurs when the browser begins to be the central focal point of computational input or interface. Microsoft, for all of their intitial dismissal of the Internet, and their complete destruction of Netscape, simply set the computing world back several years by first denying then subverting that NUI model.

In hindsight, the Microsoft messages were successful marketing efforts that sold us all on the idea that somehow we would lose out if we went with the network computer model. It was perhaps the most successful delaying campaign, and it also allowed them time to subvert the open protocols of the Internet. Fate has so far rewarded their efforts monetarily.

I think that may about to change, for there is growing realization of the benefits of open standards and the open family of technologies. That open family has brought about radical computing change, even if most computer users have yet to see that change (for not enough OEMs have made the changes available to the public yet).

As the desktop changes though, I would expect more companies to follow along with thin-client computing in order to fulfill the cost-savings that such computing allows. I also expect that there will be “browser-centric shells” or NUIs in our future. Tom Halfhill was simply eight years too early in saying hello to the NUI. It won't be a proprietary interface – it will probably be born of free and open source software, written by interested professionals.

I urge my readers to take a look at Firefox,Thunderbird, Camino and/or Mozilla. The extent of these projects is quite phenomenal, and seems to be accelerating since the non-profit foundation came into being. If you like what you see after using the products of your choice, please remember to donate, won't you? You will be helping to bring about the next revolution in computing and changing the way the world works within the comuting environment.

That is my opinion, and it is free speech. As it is free speech, it is protected speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Now, just how is that un-American, bubba?

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