Netscape sees PC upgrade path as Microsoft weak spot

Wait, don't throw those 386 PCs into the corporate dustbin quite yet. Netscape is building a chameleonlike thin-client browser that will turn those ageing PCs into hard-working Web clients for robust intranets. Due by the end of this year, the thin client will be part of Netscape's drive to offer a Web software front end for 100% of the desktop hardware now in use among enterprises. Netscape's new client, unlike a full-fledged browser, would use only the rendering model that fits the server and types of data it encounters - perhaps only housing an HTML rendering function, with Java virtual machine or JavaScript translator function taking place on a server.

Wait, don't throw those 386 PCs into the corporate dustbin quite yet. Netscape is building a chameleonlike thin-client browser that will turn those ageing PCs into hard-working Web clients for robust intranets, says a Netscape official.

Due by the end of this year, the thin client will be part of Netscape's drive to offer a Web software front end for 100% of the desktop hardware now in use among enterprises, and that means many millions of ageing Windows 3.1 boxes, says John Paul, senior vice president and general manager at Netscape's server products division.

"We have to hurt them [Microsoft] in their business model, which is the upgrade model," Paul says.

Microsoft has positioned its Internet-oriented products - including its Internet Explorer browser, Windows 95, and Windows NT operating systems, as well as some messaging products and productivity applications - to be most effective in a 32-bit environment that generally requires a Pentium-class PC with more than 16MB of RAM.

Yet some 60% of corporate PCs today would have to be upgraded in both hardware and operating systems to run such 32-bit client-side software well, Paul says. Netscape wants to help companies recover the most from their existing PC investments by providing thin Web clients that access network- and server-based programs and content.

"It's the lowest common denominator approach; not dissimilar to the browser approach of deploying applications but taken another step further," says Rob Enderle, a senior analyst at the Giga Information Group, in Santa Clara, California.

"The problem is that traditionally this approach hasn't been attractive to a buying audience because it adversely affects the folks with the higher-end systems," Enderle says. "It's also very server-centric. You're going to be buying a lot more servers, and that's expensive hardware."

Netscape's new client, unlike a full-fledged browser, would use only the rendering model that fits the server and types of data it encounters, Paul explained. That means that it may only house an HTML rendering function, with Java virtual machine or JavaScript translator function taking place on a server. Many current browsers include all these features, requiring disk space, processing power, and memory on the front end.

By acting like a chameleon and adapting to only the necessary functionality to complete the tasks at hand, Netscape's budding new product allows the legacy PC hardware now populating many corporations to accomplish Web-based work. And that offers a greater return on investment for those systems, Paul says.

Such a return on investment is especially important now as companies need to divert more of their IT budgets to address the so-called year 2000 problem, or issues that arise from the code within legacy systems that may not properly recognise a change in millennium, Paul said.

Moreover, by offering Web clients for any number of heterogeneous corporate desktops - including a thin, Java-based client for network computers - Netscape hopes to promote a four-tier enterprise architecture that relies, not surprisingly, on Netscape's server products and suites.

In this scenario, the myriad clients would connect to a middleware level that takes programs, applets, objects, and data and adapt appropriately to the client requesting it. The middleware layer would be fed data from a Web server, which would receive data from a heterogeneous smattering of legacy systems, such as SAP AG applications or mainframe systems.

"It seems like an open approach and it removes the fear of Microsoft dominance, but you would only be switching to Netscape and Sun dominance," says Enderle, adding that Netscape still hasn't earned the trust of corporate America for mission-critical applications, which its server-centric model amounts to.

Netscape is expected this coming week to detail more of its strategy for serving up clients for 100% of the corporate desktop in a two-day session with the press and analysts.

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