In the hopes of giving the network computer the old one-two punch, Microsoft will host a Partnership Pavilion this month at Comdex, in Las Vegas, to release a beta version of its multiuser Windows Hydra and detail its Windows-based Terminal (WBT) strategy.
Throwing even more muscle behind the Windows-based Terminal concept is Intel, which is pushing a low-cost 166-MHz Pentium chip to WBT vendors, giving thin clients running variants of Windows x86 compatibility and faster clock speeds, according to sources close to the company.
Intel's interest in the market signals a move away from the strictly "ultrathin" client intent of the WBT that was outlined last June.
"If you are going to run Windows CE you will need a fast processor, like its big brother [Windows 95]," said Brian Murphy, an analyst at the Yankee Group, in Boston. "You are going to need more power."
Although it appears that all the pieces and major players are falling into place for the WBTs and Hydra, a critical element is still missing: the client operating system.
Vendors are still waiting on WinCE for Hydra, a special version of WinCE for WBTs that will include the T-share protocol.
Vendors have said they expect the OS soon, but analysts aren't as understanding.
"This isn't even vaporware, it's nowhere," Murphy said. "Microsoft's goal is to create fear and uncertainty among buyers and freeze the market. Has anyone seen T-share yet?"
Nevertheless, WBTs will dominate the Microsoft Partnership Pavilion, running WinCE and using an alternative Independent Computing Architecture protocol licensed from Citrix.
Wyse Technology will be on hand with a new system being branded as a WBT that supports sound and video, which T-share does not support. Although the products won't include T-share, they will be fully firmware upgradable when the new OS is available, as will all of Wyse's Winterm products made after 1995.
NCD Software will show its WBT, code-named Thumper, which is ready for demonstration but is not currently shipping.
Hewlett-Packard will also be in the booth running the Hydra beta version on its servers and using NCD's clients. NCD officials declined to say if HP would buy its WBTs from NCD, but they did say the two companies were talking.
Boundless Technologies will round out the WBT providers by showing the Hydra beta version on its ViewPoint 200. When the WinCE for Hydra OS is available, Boundless will introduce the ViewPoint 400 as its complete WBT.
Most end-users plan to take a cautious, wait-and-see approach.
"We are paying attention, and it helps that thin-clients are gaining the Microsoft name, but we can't get too excited about things that don't even exist yet," said one IT manager at a Fortune 500 company.
Meanwhile, Microsoft will try to avoid the fizzle that followed the hype for the NetPC at PCExpo when a lack of customer interest caused several potential vendors to scrap plans for the product.
"Microsoft learned a few lessons from the NetPC debacle and it's something they don't want to repeat," one hardware vendor said.
NetPC: Microsoft's other move
The NetPC strategy may be stalling, but NetPC system announcements are expected from NEC and Dell in the coming weeks.
NEC's PowerMate Enterprise NetPC comes with either a 166-MHz or 200-MHz Pentium MMX processor, 16MB to 32MB of RAM, as large as a 6.4GB hard drive, and a small form factor, with prices ranging from $US1,049 to $1,299.
NEC will also introduce its line NEC PowerMate Enterprise II systems that feature the 233-MHz, 266-MHz, and 300-MHz Pentium II processors. Prices range from $1,749 to $3,028.
Dell will next week announce its NetPC, which includes 166-MHz, 200-MHz, and 233-MHz processors at prices starting at $1,000, said sources.