Oracle's NCI readies Java-based mobile NC

The stalled mobile network computer (NC) effort may get a jump-start later this year when Oracle ships what could be the first device from a major Java proponent. The company's Network Computer Inc. (NCI) subsidiary intends to unveil a sub-$US1,000, Java-based mobile NC that can be used by field workers or act as a dial-up hub in remote offices. The device is expected to be based on standards announced nearly a year ago by a consortium of hardware and software makers.

The stalled mobile network computer (NC) effort may get a jump-start later this year when Oracle ships what could be the first device from a major Java proponent.

The company's Network Computer Inc. (NCI) subsidiary intends to unveil a sub-$US1,000, Java-based mobile NC that can be used by field workers or act as a dial-up hub in remote offices.

The device is expected to be based on standards announced nearly a year ago by a consortium of hardware and software makers.

Implementing the standard hasn't been easy. When a multivendor group announced the standards effort last June, members hoped to adopt a final specification in a few months and start shipping products within a year. But the Mobile Network Computer Reference Specification (MNCRS) Consortium only last month released a draft specification, and the final version may not be out until September.

NCI will not build complete devices, but will instead package its mobile NC software with hardware from a variety of American and Japanese OEMs.

NCI could offer different kinds of mobile NCs to meet the specific needs of field workers, said Jeff Menz, NCI's director of product management. Employees doing simple data entry in a warehouse, for example, wouldn't need large screens and full keyboards, while sales professionals would.

More complex Java-based NCs will have proxy caching capabilities, Menz said, "so you have the ability to disconnect from the network and still do some fairly interesting things with Web pages or JavaScript.''

NCI also intends to include smart card technology in all of its mobile NCs, although smart cards are optional under the draft specification. Users would have to insert their smart cards into the NC to provide ident- ification information before being connected to the network.

Two other leaders of the network computer working group, Sun Microsystems and IBM, said they have no immediate plans to ship Java-based mobile NCs.

Sun won't have mobile NCs on the market until sometime next year, company officials said. And an IBM source said "it's too early to pinpoint when we will also introduce a mobile NC.''

One analyst said the delay in rolling out mobile NCs isn't surprising. "There's been too much talk in the NC market, and not enough action,'' said Eileen O'Brien, of IDC, a market research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Noting that "it will be at least a year and a half since the [mobile NC] specification was announced before we see a product,'' O'Brien said the wait will make it more difficult for "businesses to buy into the NC concept.''

The mobile specification is an extension of the Network Computer Reference Profile, a set of protocols agreed to by Sun and its Java/NC allies in 1996 to provide a common platform for mobile NCs.

Sun officials said the company is working on two different kinds of Java-based mobile NCs.

One is aimed at enterprises in campus environments such as hospitals, where doctors and nurses making rounds need quick access to patient information, said Ameet Mehta, marketing manager of Java-based mobile products for Sun Microsystems Computer Co., a unit of Sun.

"This is a market where users run the same application over and over again,'' Mehta said. As such, the device would need only enough memory to store an operating system and the main application and would have a wireless connection to the network.

The second mobile NC product being developed at Sun is aimed at road warriors. This device would need more caching space because such employees frequently need to work on the NC when it is disconnected from the network.

Meanwhile, a company that is not part of the MNCRS group may launch a Java-based mobile NC in September.

Concept Technologies, a division of the British company Hugh Symons Group Plc., plans to sell its product, called Pic Pocket, for about US$1,000.

Toshiba already has introduced a mobile NC into the Japanese market.

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