All you need is a dumb device attached to a smart network. It’s an old idea that refuses to die despite repeated failures. Now it’s Google’s turn.

In the late 1980s, Sun Microsystems used a simple, potent war cry to promote its servers: The Network Is The Computer. Entrust all of your business intelligence, computing power, and storage to Sun’s networked SPARC systems and you can replace your expensive workstation with a dumb, low cost machine. PCs are doomed.

Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Sun’s venture was disrupted by inexpensive servers assembled from the PC organ bank and running Open Source software.

PCs prospered, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of those who would rid us of them.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s and thought re-emerges in a new guise: The Browser Will Be The Operating System (a statement that’s widely misattributed to Marc Andreessen, who holds a more nuanced view on the matter). The browser will serve as a way to access networked services that will process your data. The actual OS on your device, what sort of apps it can run — or even if it can run any (other than a browser) — these questions will fade into insignificance.

Soon after, Oracle took a swing at the Network is the Computer piñata by defining the Network Computer Reference Profile (or NCRP), a specification that focused on network connectivity and deemphasized local storage and processing. It was understood, if not explicitly stated, that an NCRP device must be diskless. A number of manufacturers offered NCRP implementations, including Sun (which would ultimately be acquired by Oracle) with its JavaStation. But despite Larry Ellison’s strongly expressed belief that Network Computers would rid the industry of the evil Microsoft, the effort went nowhere.

Today, The Network Is The Computer lives on under the name Cloud Computing, the purest example of which is a Google Chromebook running on Chrome OS. (And thus, in a sense, Sun’s idea lives on: Google’s first investor was Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim.)

So far, Chromebooks have shown only modest penetration (a topic for musings in a future Monday Note), but despite the slow adoption, Google has become one of the largest and most important Cloud Computing companies on the planet. Combine this with the Android operating system that powers more than a billion active devices, could Google bring us to the point where The Network Really Is The Computer?

It’s a complicated question, partly because the comparison with the previous generation of devices, traditional PCs, can (excuse me) cloud the view.

Unlike PCs, smartphones rely on an expensive wireless infrastructure. One can blame the oligopolistic nature of the wireless carrier industry (in English: too few companies to have a really competitive market), but that doesn’t change the simple fact that wireless bandwidth isn’t cheap. The dumber the device, the more it has to rely on the Cloud to process and store data, and the more bandwidth it will consume.

Let’s visit Marc Andreessen actual words regarding Network-As-Computer, from a 2012 Wired interview [emphasis mine]:

“[I]f you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model.”

If we interject, on Andreessen’s behalf, that wireless connectivity must be as inexpensive as it is ubiquitous, then we begin to see the problem. The “data hunger” of media intensive apps, from photo processing to games, shows no sign of slowing down. And when you consider the wireless bandwidth scarcity that comes from the rapid expansion of smartphone use, it seems that conditions are, yet again, conspiring against the “dumb device” model.

The situation is further confounded when we consider that Google’s business depends on delivering users to advertisers. Cloud computing will help drive down the cost of Android handsets and thus offer an even wider audience to advertisers…but these advertisers want a pleasant and memorable UI, they want the best canvas for their ads. When you dumb down the phone, you dumb down the ad playback experience.

In a recent blog post titled The next phase of smartphones, Benedict Evans neatly delineates the two leading “cloud views” by contrasting Apple and Google [emphasis mine]:

“Apple’s approach is about a dumb cloud enabling rich apps while Google’s is about devices as dumb glass that are endpoints of cloud services…”

But Google’s “dumb glass” can’t be too dumb.  For its mobile advertising business, Google needs to “see” everything we do on our smartphones, just like it does on our PCs. Evans intimates as much:

“…it seems that Google is trying to make ‘app versus web’ an irrelevant discussion – all content will act like part of the web, searchable and linkable by Google.”

Native apps running on a “really smart” device are inimical to Google’s business model. To keep the advertisers happy, Google would have to “instrument” native apps, insert deep links that will feed its data collection activities.

This is where the Apple vs. Google contrast is particularly significant: iOS apps are not allowed to let advertisers know what we are doing – unless explicitly authorized. Apple’s business model doesn’t rely on peddling our profile to advertisers.

In the end, I wonder if Google really believes in the “dumb glass” approach to smartphones. Perhaps, at least for now, The Computer will remain The Computer.

JLG@mondaynote.com