Vendors unveil the first Net PCs

NEW YORK - PC vendors at the PC Expo conference last week demonstrated the first products supporting the Net PC specification which aims to create a class of inexpensive and easy-to-manage PCs. (For more PC Expo coverage see Page 45.)

The Net PC specification devised by Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. working with PC makers calls for scaled-down products that offer greater manageability and lower operating costs than conventional PCs. Systems meeting the specification are sealable units that lack floppy drives CD-ROM drives and expandability features.

Most Net PC products are expected to ship in the third calendar quarter but it remains unclear whether the products will be added to the General Services Administration schedule in time for the peak buying season. Few vendors would discuss pricing but industry executives expect Net PCs to cost around $1 000.Vendors exhibiting Net PCs included federal suppliers such as Compaq Computer Corp. Dell Computer Corp. Gateway 2000 Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. While the vendors emphasized Net PCs they noted that the manageability features of those products will migrate to their traditional PC offerings which they believe will continue to represent the vast majority of their sales.

"A new generation of PCs is emerging " said Michael Dell chairman and chief executive officer of Dell during his keynote address. Dell pointed to what he termed "managed PCs " a category that he said included Net PCs and also future desktop and notebook computers incorporating manageability features.At PC Expo Dell demonstrated two Net PC prototypes one with a 233 MHz Pentium with MMX technology and the other with a 266 MHz Pentium II chip. The hardware and software configurations of both prototypes are controlled remotely as called for in the Net PC specification. The company plans to ship its Net PCs later this year but did not provide a specific date.

Compaq meanwhile demonstrated its Deskpro 4000N the company's Net PC offering. The 4000N runs a Pentium processor with MMX technology and features 32M of memory an internal hard drive a PCI slot two universal serial bus ports two serial ports and a parallel port. The product will ship with Windows NT pre-installed.

The product's management features include remote system installation and remote wake up which allows systems administrators to activate computers to update flash BIOS or upgrade software. The product integrates with third-party systems management products including Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Configuration Manager Microsoft's Systems Management Server Novell Inc.'s ManageWise Seagate Technology Inc.'s WINLand Symantec Corp.'s Norton Administrator for Networks. The N4000 also will integrate with planned enhancements to McAfee Inc.'s Zero Administration Client.

Michael Takemura product manager for Compaq's North American desktop marketing said evaluation units will be available for customers including federal agencies within 90 days. He expects the N4000 to appeal to customers replacing terminals or to information systems directors looking to have more centralized control of software distribution and operating systems management. In the government sector the product also could find a role in kiosk applications.

Like other vendors Gateway is planning a third-quarter ship date for its Net PC the E-1000N. The product is part of Gateway's E-Series of PCs that offer such manageability features as Intel's LANDesk Client Manager and self- monitoring hard drives. A spokesman for Gateway said some E-Series products would be available on the GSA schedule in 30 days but was unsure when the E-1000N would be added.

HP demonstrated its Net Vectra PC the company's Net PC entry. The product features a 200 MHz Pentium chip a 1G hard drive and runs Windows NT. The product will be available in the third quarter and will be priced around $1 000 according to a company representative. The Net Vectra PC has an optional smart card keyboard for regulating user access.

Industry executives said they believed the Net PCs will play a niche role in the market with most customers opting for traditional PCs.

"Those [Net PCs] I see as a replacement for dumb terminals in the federal market " said Payton Smith a research analyst with IDC Government. He said the products could support single-task chores but they would be less effective for users running multiple applications such as spreadsheet word processing and presentation graphics.

Net PC vendors acknowledge that the majority of their customers will probably continue to purchase traditional PCs.

"For us it's a little uncertain " Dell said on the prospects for Net PC sales. He said the company's large customers prefer "PCs that are more fully featured and flexible but manageable." Dell plans to include emerging managed PC technologies in future versions of its OptiPlex PC and Latitude notebook lines.Takemura said Compaq has been incorporating management capabilities in its PC products. They plan to "provide more manageability" in future PCs.

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