Intel has used the PC Expo show to gather leading PC makers in a show of force to officially launch the Network PC (NetPC) and offer the final list of specifications for the machines which are designed to cut computer maintenance and management costs for companies.
Intel left a lot of leeway for manufacturers, refraining from trying to enforce rigid, low-end hardware specifications for the NetPC machines, widely seen as Intel and Microsoft's answer to the stripped-down Network Computer.
Instead, Intel offered a set of PC management and software specifications to describe what manufacturers must do to be able to label machines NetPCs.
"The basic requirement for hardware manufacturers is that whatever they put into the NetPC, it must be able to be centrally managed and not extensible by the end user," says Mike Aymar, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Products Group.
This definition of the NetPC gives more room for manufacturers than previous prelaunch specifications floated by the NetPC design partners, including Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Compaq. Earlier specifications required that NetPCs have sealed CPUs.
Though the announcement was long-expected, there were many questions about the nature of the NetPC before today's announcement, according to industry insiders.
"Intel has to answer the question of whether the NetPC is a specific product or whether it is more of a program," says Chris Le Tocq, an analyst at market researcher Dataquest in San Jose, California.
Though declining to label the NetPC a "program," Aymar agrees that the NetPC could be considered a set of guidelines that could be applied to a broad set of desktop machines to insure that they can be centrally managed.
There are four core requirements for the NetPC, according to Aymar. The NetPC specs, now available at Intel's World Wide Web site (http://www.intel.com/), require:
--A standard remote boot-up function that allows network managers to turn machines on and off;
--Fundamental instrumentation and monitoring functions;
--Remote management features;
--The ability for network managers to enable and disable user-accessible devices.
Attendees at the event got the message.
"Intel is giving manufacturers a lot of room on the hardware side because the manufacturers each like to do things a little differently," says David Roth, a senior account executive with MicroAge Information Services in New York. "But what this is about from the user perspective is that there has to be a uniform way for network managers to manage and control the hardware - this is where savings come in."
But Roth, a consultant and reseller whose main clients are New York financial institutions, says the NetPC is not for everyone. "I think it will be very well received by places like customer service companies such as Visa, where PC users servicing customers are doing really defined things over and over, but necessarily for banks - financial institutions want to give a lot of autonomy to departments and users to help them be as creative as possible."
Analysts say the NetPC management specifications will be applied to a broad range of desktop machines over the next year or so.
"Really, over the next 18 months, all PCs will become NetPCs," says Greg Blatnik, vice president of Zona Research. "All PCs going forward will take advantage of these management functions, because they provide cost savings that most organizations would be ecstatic about."
The Intel event featured Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, which co-authored the NetPC specifications.
Other vendors with NetPCs displayed on stage during the event included: Acer America, Gateway 2000, IBM, Mitac, Mitsubishi, NEC Computer Systems Division, Phoenix Technologies, Unisys and Zenith Data Systems. Most of the vendors are promising NetPC products in the third quarter, according to Intel officials.
Products shown at the launch included two prototypes from Dell, one featuring a 233-MHz Pentium processor with MMX technology and a second featuring 266-MHz Pentium II chip. No pricing for the machines, due to be launched later this year, was offered.
Compaq also showed the Deskpro 4000N, which incorporates the NetPC specifications. It features a "sealable" case design - which allows managers to lock up the CPU so it can not be accessed by users - Intel Pentium processor with MMX technology, and includes 32M bytes of SDRAM (synchronous dynamic access memory). Though it doesn't offer a floppy drive or a CD-ROM drive, it does have a a PCI slot, two USB ports, two serial ports and a parallel port. The machine is due out at the end of the third quarter.
But vendors offering NetPCs won't be limited to only those showing products at the event today. For example, Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems will be showing off its Scenic NetPC - announced at CeBIT in March - this week at PC Expo, and will be launching a new version in September, according to officials here today.
And later in the week, Japanese PC vendors are expected to gather in Tokyo for a similar vote of support for the NetPC, hosted by Microsoft.
NetPC management technologies are designed to enable enhanced services such as remote system configuration, software installations and upgrades, off-hours maintenance, problem resolution, and asset management.
The machines are mainly designed for task-oriented users who require no hardware expandability. The systems give greatest cost savings if they contain no floppy disk drive, CD-ROM drive or hardware expansion slots, according to Intel. But officials said that even PCs with these features could be considered NetPCs as long as they adhered to basic central management guidelines.
In testing for user-company pilot programs, these management services were provided by Intel's LANDesk software.
Other software that will help PC meet the basic central-management requirements for NetPCs will be Microsoft's Zero Administration Kit, available for free download from Microsoft's Web site (http://www.micrososft.com) "very shortly," according to Microsoft's Moshe Dunie, who spoke at the event.
The kit will include a PC system setup preconfigured to run off Windows NT Server 4.0, and two preconfigured application setups: the Appstation, which will require Office 97, and the more restrictive Taskstation mode, for users doing narrowly defined tasks.
Dunie also delivered a jab at the NC concept pushed by Oracle Corp., saying that "between the windows terminal and the NetPC we provide all the features that the network computer provides, without the restrictions."
Also today, Intel announced a System Management BIOS (SM BIOS) reference specification designed in conjunction with Dell, IBM, HP, and BIOS vendors including Award Software, Phoenix Technology Ltd., and SystemSoft.
The specification provides a common guideline for describing BIOS information so that this data can be integrated into operating systems and management applications from different vendors. The point of the specification is to speed the implementation of management capabilities in desktop and mobile PCs as well as servers