Network computers (NC) may be drawing yawns from corporate customers surveyed about their buying intentions, but Netscape remains bullish on the future of NCs and the broader sphere of thin-client computing.
In a telephone interview this week, Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen insisted the NC movement is alive and well, with appearances to the contrary simply a matter of today's sparse product choices. He also emphasised that his company's thin-client strategy-- predicated on the heavy use of Java, JavaBeans, HTML and Dynamic HTML - transcends any particular type of hardware.
"There are a couple of hundred new kinds of devices with different form factors: some desktop-based, some hand-held, some TV-based or cable set-top based," Andreessen said. "We want to be able to have complete coverage across all of those."
Toward that end, Netscape has promised to deliver a 100% Pure Java version of its Navigator Web browser in the first quarter of 1998, with the rest of the Communicator client suite getting the same treatment shortly thereafter. The Java browserwill be bundled with NCs from Sun Microsystems and Oracle.
On the server side, members of Netscape's SuiteSpot family - including Calendar, Collabra, Directory, Messaging and Enterprise servers - have already got, or will be getting, a complete set of HTML and Java interfaces, Andreessen said. This means that any device that understands HTML or Java "will be able to contact one of these servers over the network and get an interface for the user without having to have that preinstalled on the client machine."
Netscape's Messenger Express and Calendar Express already provide this HTML interface into their respective servers, Andreessen said. Other services, such as document management and searching, are scheduled for inclusion in the next major revision of SuiteSpot, code-named Apollo, due in the first half of next year.
"[Messenger Express] means you can walk up to any device on the network, type in your name and the address of your mail server, and you can read all your email," Andreessen said. "It doesn't matter where you are on the network or what kind of device you are using."
A key to the thin-client evolution will be the expanded use of Dynamic HTML, the de facto standard for infusing Webpages with application-like capabilities. Netscape and chief rival Microsoft continue to do battle over defining and deploying the Dynamic HTML standard.
"The ability to do Dynamic HTML is something we think is very important," Andreessen said. "It's going to be a primary way that we can provide these interfaces off of SuiteSpot, and also we think application developers can [use it to] quickly build these kinds of apps."
Despite all the enthusiasm and hype pouring out of Netscape, Oracle, Sun, IBM and others, the thin-client concept continues to be a tough sell in some enterprise shops that have come to rely on the full-throated power of PCs.
"We've looked, but there's no real benefit [in thin clients] to us today," said Phil Gibson, director of InterActive Marketing at National Semiconductor in Santa Clara, California. "Somebody with no infrastructure who had to tap a Web site, maybe it would make sense."