Competing network computers debut

The market for network computers and other low-cost hardware platforms heated up last week with announcements involving companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc. Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. Some of the products unveiled could arrive on federal contracts late this year.

Sun announced JavaStation a diminutive device designed to run applications written in Sun's Java language but also capable of accessing Microsoft's Windows applications. Sun will start shipping JavaStations in December with prices starting at $742.

Microsoft and Intel Corp. meanwhile announced plans to develop specifications for a low-cost box the companies are calling a NetPC. Pricing and shipment dates have not been set but reportedly some NetPC models will cost less than $1 000. In addition Oracle Corp. disclosed plans to bundle Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator with Oracle's network computer operating environment which will ship with Intel-based network computers next year.

The announcements add new players and partnerships to the network computer scene which also includes companies such as IBM Corp. and Network Computing Devices.

A network computer is an inexpensive hardware device designed to access applications on an organization's network or the Internet. Because they rely on networks network computers lack the local processing and storage resources of a traditional PC and therefore are less expensive and easier to maintain advocates contend.

Industry executives said they believe the growing stable of network computers will begin to penetrate federal agencies but not take the market by storm.

"I don't see them replacing PCs anytime soon as the dominant desktop device " said Chip Bumgardner chief technology officer at BTG Inc. He said the main obstacle to wider acceptance is a lack of network-based office applications - word processing spreadsheet and electronic mail.

But Bumgardner said network computers will find an initial niche role as an alternative to X terminals and dumb terminals. He added that network computers will land on General Services Administration schedule pacts and emerge as line items on indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity contracts.

Sun's EntrySun's JavaStation comes in three varieties. The entry-level JavaStation priced at $742 comes with 8M of RAM but lacks a monitor and keyboard. A package that includes 8M of RAM a keyboard mouse and a 14-inch color monitor is priced at $995. The high end of the line which will ship with 16M of RAM a keyboard a mouse and a 17-inch color monitor is priced at $1 565.

A spokeswoman for Sun's federal operations said the JavaStation will have wide applicability in the government sector from service-to-the-citizen proj-ects to military logistics. She added that the JavaStation products will be headed for federal contracts but declined to provide details.

BTG's Bumgardner however said his company expects to add the JavaStation products to its General Services Administration schedule contract. Likewise Government Micro Resources Inc. plans to offer JavaStations through its Schedule A pact.

JavaStations come equipped with Sun's microSPARCII chip and JavaOS an operating system designed to run Java-based applications. But Sun's network computers also can run Microsoft Windows applications by using Insignia Solutions' NTRIGUE applet.

NetPC Gains SupportMicrosoft and Intel plan to issue their NetPC specification later this year. A number of hardware manufacturers including federal market leaders such as Compaq Computer Corp. Dell Computer Corp. Gateway 2000 and Hewlett-Packard Co. are backing the Microsoft/Intel plan.

Will Swope director of Intel's NetPC effort said some vendors are "well under way" in designing their NetPC products. HP for example plans to introduce NetPC products in 1997.

NetPCs differ from network computers in that the former will retain many of the features of PCs running Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows 95 or NT operating systems. The NetPCs also will have hard disk drives unlike the network computers. "The NetPC is a PC " Swope said.

The NetPC however is positioned as a machine that is simpler and easier to maintain than a traditional PC. For example it lacks typical PC features such as end-user expansion slots.

The device also will lack floppy disk drives which could appeal to the government's security needs noted Phil Holden a Microsoft product manager with the company's Windows product team.

Swope said the NetPC could be an option for federal agencies with computing tasks that are not likely to change during the life of a machine. He added that Intel has yet to develop a federal sales plan for NetPCs.A spokesman for GMR however said the company is interested in carrying NetPCs on its GSA B/C Schedule.

Oracle Sees NC InterestOracle's Network Computer Inc. subsidiary will include Netscape's Navigator for its network computer operating environment. This will make Navigator a standard feature of Intel-based network computers that are scheduled to ship in the first half of 1997.

Tim Hoechst director of technology at Oracle Government said federal agencies have expressed interest in the network computer concept. He said agencies on the verge of launching new procurements are stopping to think about whether network computers make more sense than traditional PCs.


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