PCs cost too much to maintain, don't deliver

Comdex was the setting for renewed debate on whether network computers are the answer to the high cost of PC ownership.

That message is getting under vendors skin, judging from last week's Comdex/Fall '96 show. Whether they show off network computers or fully configured PCs, computer companies talked up their plans to reduce the cost of ownership for desktop systems.

Network computers also caught the attention of many information systems managers, who say that despite worries about network overload, they are willing to give the diskless devices a shot.

The giant PC show offered many their first look at devices such as IBM's Network Station, Network Computing Devices' Universal Network Computer and Wyse Technology's latest Winterm, Model 4000.

Network computers were designed to give users access to applications and data stored on a centrally managed server or mainframe. The devices offer hope that IS managers can reduce support and administration costs for large numbers of desktop users.

"I don't know everything there is to know about network computers but I'm very intrigued by them because what we spend on PC upgrades and maintenance is unbelievable," says Michael Haun, president of Bell-Haun Systems in Westerville, Ohio. Bell-Haun maintains telephone systems.

Robert Tunney, a systems analyst at Lockheed Marti in Bethesda, Maryland, says his company is waiting for network computer hardware to come along and that buy-off from upper management isn't an issue. "It won't be difficult at all as long as they work," he says.

IBM showed off its Network Station, which comes with IBM's LAN Control Client Manager for remote management. The prototype was built to the Network Computer Reference Platform specification supported by IBM, Su, Oracle and others. Microsof's competitive response to the rival network computer also garnered its share of supporters. In a session hosted by Bear Stearns & Co., Jim McDonnell, Hewlett-Packard's worldwide marketing manager, outlined his company's commitment to Microsoft's NetPC, a bare-bones system that runs Windows. "We believe the NetPC, which we're working on as we speak with Microsoft, will really get at this whole notion of total cost of ownership," McDonnell says.

The network computer also turned up as a topic in a panel that included executives from SunSoft, Oracle, IBM and Microsoft. Guy Bud Tribble, vice-president of object products at SunSoft, disputed the idea that network computers are a throwback to dumb terminals.

"Dumb terminals and mainframes load the server down too much," Tribble says. But network computers that run Sun's Java Internet programming language "take central management from the mainframe world and local processing power from the PC world and put them together.''

But speakers at International Data's (IDC) session on network appliances threw cold water on the hype about network computers. IDC analyst Bruce Stephen says network computers will succeed mainly as terminal replacements in the commercial market.

"The network computer is piggybacking on the coattails of terminal migration," Stephen says. "It's also good for lightweight PC users.''

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