Column: Kona offers hope to pensioner PCs

Sun's Kona offers renewed life for 386 PCs that might otherwise be consigned to the silicon scrapheap.

Leafing through my soggy, mud-spattered copy of the North Shore Times (our community newspaper) recently I came across a heart warming story about the ASB Bank. The ASB was giving away 10 PCs to non-profit community groups. The story ran with a big picture of an ASB manager draped over the PCs in question. However, the bank's magnanimity palled as I read on. The PCs were 286s and 386s with 20Mb-40Mb hard drives and could run DOS only.

Obviously old ASB machines diverted from the rubbish heap. I can imagine the excitement of the recipients turning to frustration when they find out what these machines can and--more to the point--can't do. But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon and old x86 machines may soon gain a new lease of life--well those with a floating point co-processor (386 and 486DX upwards--no SX PCs, sorry) anyway. The technology that could see a halt to the upgrade cycle is Sun's imminent operating system--code-named Kona. (Also known as Java running on bare metal--a phrase the nerds will just love).

Kona, is due out commercially in about three weeks, allows the PC in effect to run Java applets and HTML(hyper text markup language) without an operating system.

As Sun systems engineer manager Roger De Salis explains: "Basically Java is a virtual machine in software. It's binary code which throws out programs. With Kona, instead of having the binary code run as a type of software, it will run directly on a 386DX or 486DX. The binary code doesn't have to be hosted by an operating system."

This makes it a direct challenge to the Microsoft Windows platform and also provides an alternative to the network PC.

"The total frustration in the domestic and home market with computers is that you have to know a truckload about Windows to do anything useful. A PC running Kona will be something halfway between a Sony or Nintendo Playstation and a traditional PC," he says, although he is quick to point out that the home market is not where Sun is aiming.

"Businesses in New Zealand are spending inordinate amounts of money maintaining their PC networks. Kona is aimed at corporations which don't want to have to carry out PC management. If you can chuck away that complexity, that's what it's all about. If we can also sell some to the home market, we'll be happy campers."

Kona will be downloadable to a single floppy disk and will provide enough binary code to boot the PC up and get it to make calls across the network.

"When you use Kona it will be much like downloading a Web page. A screen will come up with a few buttons that allow you to make calls on to the network."

De Salis says the final release won't be free but it will be priced low and will support anything that currently runs in Netscape or Internet Explorer. But how will those people running Windows make the transition? It would be pretty scary throwing away your programs and operating system.

"Suppose somebody brings out a spreadsheet applet and a small editor--I won't use the term word processor, although that's what it does--do you need all that other desktop stuff just because it's what most people use? If you have a database, an editor and mail what else do you need?" de Sallis asks.

So to those hapless North Shore community groups the message is clear--don't worry about learning DOS, just hang on to your 386s , get an Internet connection and in a couple of weeks you'll be able to download Kona and the applications you need. Hey, it's just a suggestion!

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