Web Informant #218, 6 October 2000:
Think NIC? Think again.


The idea of a computer that is designed around a web browser is an intriguing notion. But the more I used the New Internet Computer, the creation of Oracle's Larry Ellison, the more I disliked it.

The NIC, as it is called, is a small form-factor 256 MHz PC that runs Linux from its built-in CD drive. It comes with speakers, a modem and an Ethernet connection, along with some very simple instructions on how to get it connected to the Internet. It is a $200 machine (plus a monitor) that is designed to run the Netscape browser and little else. The target audience is for people who are PC virgins, and who want Internet access without a lot of hassle. Think the WebTV generation.

I really was pulling for the NIC: after all, an inexpensive, Microsoft-free machine has lots of appeal. The problem is that while the NIC is easy to setup, it doesn't really deliver.

The NIC is great at viewing plain text web pages, or those with static images. Its processor and graphics components deliver pages quickly, and better than a 300 MHz Windows machine. But the world of the web these days isn't like this anymore. We have animations, video, audio and hundreds of other things that complicate the surfing experience. Not to mention AOL Instant Messenger, Napster, and other things that require their own non-web client software.

As a result, many of the web sites that I visited didn't display properly, or else like Shockwave.com weren't supported at all. In the interests of keeping it simple, the NIC folks have also kept their baby stupid. Yes, you can display (but not edit or store) Microsoft Word files using a built-in translator, and also see Acrobat documents as well. But that's about it. MyFreeDesk.com was the only one of the web-based browser suites that I found that could work with the NIC, among several that I tested.

Many of the things I wanted to do with it were difficult, and some were impossible, even though the device was running a relatively recent version of Netscape. Some of the pages were displayed with fonts too small to read, and so I naturally assumed I could change their size. Nope, that menu choice isn't available. Bringing up more than one window was tricky, too. And don't waste any time looking around on the hard disk for a place to store your content, because you won't find it -- the NIC doesn't have any real local storage, other than a small amount of room to keep track of your bookmarks.

When I saw the speakers, I had great hopes for the NIC when it came to hearing some music. But you can't use the built-in CD drive to play audio CDs -- or run anything else for that matter -- it is locked shut all the time and used to run the machine's firmware.

If you come across a web site with some Real Audio streams or some MP3 files, you can click on them. But don't get your expectations too high because the streaming media performance of the NIC is just awful. Because some of the code resides on the CD, the device has to go through the painful process of loading it, while you wait for your content to play. And you will wait several minutes before you hear any music. And the music died on MyMP3.com -- I couldn't play any songs at all, not even American Pie.

If you want to do email, you won't find Netscape Messenger (the companion POP email client that comes with the Navigator browser): it isn't there. You'll have to settle for reading and writing your email inside the browser, using something like Hotmail or Netscape's own web-based version or some other service provider. That means if you use a dial-up network, you must compose your messages online. Yuck.

So it goes.

The NIC folks have tried. They have added the AOL IM client on the latest update of software, along with some card games and even a Telnet and SSH client. But still, these are barely acceptable versions. You can't cheat at Solitare (no way to Undo), the IM client doesn't have those annoyingly helpful sounds to tell you when someone is online, and pray tell what is SSH doing on a computer for new users?

The NIC isn't my father's computer. Truth be told, my dad does Windows. When he finally wanted to get with the Internet generation, we went shopping for a WebTV. He couldn't navigate the tiny menus, and reading text on the TV screen wasn't for him. We left the store and he bought a PC shortly thereafter. I think it was the right move, even though he does call me for help every now and then.

I was really rooting for the NIC: the CEO is an old friend of mine, and the machine sure looks cute. But it has too many flaws, and until its hobbled version of Netscape can be more flexible, this NIC has too many nicks. Ideally, it should include some simple word processing program too, and be able to do more with audio content, such as play music CDs, or just play music on its IM client. But for now, it is a curiosity on my desktop, and of limited utility. If you were thinking about getting one for your parents, do them and yourself a favor and get a cheap PC or a low-end iMac instead. Your folks will be happier, and be able to do more. Maybe they can even telnet to my server and have some fun, too.

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David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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