Network: Sunny side of the Internet

Surfing the Net could be as easy as dialling one, two, three. For Sun, the future seems bright.
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Internet access that is as easy as picking up a telephone or turning on a tap sounds enticing. For computer company Sun, this holy grail of the IT industry is now a strategic objective.

Dubbed the "Web tone", such a service should make information access quick and easy. Regardless of location, users will be able to access the Internet, send and receive e-mail just as simply as they now make phone calls.

"People need to feel as though they are not using a computer," said Janpieter Scheerder, president of Sun's software arm, SunSoft. "All you need is a browser and a Web tone to get whatever information you need. The network becomes the computer."

Sun announced its strategic vision last week at the same time it announced record third-quarter revenues of more than $2.1bn. The company has moved from its traditional focus on hardware sales to software, led primarily by its rapidly growing Java programming language.

Sun is convinced Java will enable the delivery of IT systems that will make information access easy. The language's structure means that programs written in it can run on any computer platform. This enables information to be accessed regardless of location or the type of computer on which it is stored.

"We need to hide the complexity of systems," Mr Scheerder said. "The user does not need or want to know about what is going on technically - they just want a service that works. Delivering a Web tone means delivering simplicity."

Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman, president and CEO, likened the Web tone to utilities such as phones, water and electricity.

"It's a utility service and exactly the same model as a dial tone," he said. "You don't have to program your telephone exchange every time you want to make a call. You could say you boot your phone just by picking it up. Web access needs to be that simple."

Sun backed its strategic vision with the announcement of new high-powered Web server software. Designed for Internet service providers, the software can handle 2,500 transactions per second.

The business advantages of establishing Web tone access to information are vast, according to Steve MacKay, vice president and general manager of SunSoft.

"In some major cities before the advent of the telephone, there were four or five mail deliveries a day," he said. "If you wanted to communicate with someone at the other end of town, you had to write them a letter.

"The telephone changed all that and what we are talking about now is a revolution that will have an even greater impact."

The critical factor for the success of a Web tone system is reliability. The Internet is dogged by access difficulties as more and more users fight for limited network resources. For telephone-like reliability, significant infrastructure investment will be required.

Initially, Sun's Web tone strategy will be focused on large companies and organisations, enabling them to improve employee access to information and resources.

However, in the longer term, Sun sees the concept being extended to enable simple access for everyone. Users will access the Internet through a variety of devices from portable terminals and computers to public kiosks and telephones. Internet access will become part of daily life for all.

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