We've seen the future and it works

I have seen the network computer--and it works.

Strictly speaking, Acorn Computers' prototype NC is not yet fully compliant with the new NC reference profile, but is "moving in that direction"--and moving rapidly away from its former identity as that token of a former era, the set-top box.

Acorn has been the first company able to demonstrate an NC prototype, only four months after the UK parent company announced a development agreement with Oracle, one of the strongest supporters of the NC concept.

As Apple is seeking to do with Pippin, Acorn has been able to leapfrog into the new NC business by building on work already done on set-top boxes. In Acorn's case, it is building on broadband trials conducted by subsidiary Online Media in Cambridge in the UK.

"Essentially, we've been taking things out to make the box into a network computer," says Acorn New Zealand technician David Hunter. "The ATM connection has gone--like everyone else we assumed broadband networks were the way and like everyone else we've now realised they're a few years off."

The prototype being demonstrated locally by Acorn is about the size and shape of a VCR, but the dimensions of the model due to go into production in September are a slimline 300mm x 200mm x 45mm. There are three connections--one for power, one for the network and one for a PAL TV.

Yes, TV. Using a small infrared keyboard and a 28.8Kbit/s modem connection, we pointed the NC's own "NetPaddler" browser ("We're not quite surfing yet," explains Hunter) at www.idg.co.nz, @IDG's Web site. It worked--in fact, it looked quite handsome, with text automatically resized for TV viewing and Acorn's own anti-twittering software holding the picture straight.

The Paddler even did frames, thanks to Hunter and others, who are updating the Internet software on a weekly basis and have leapfrogged their UK counterparts by implementing POP3 mail. For convenience the prototype has a hard drive, but the production version will have no local storage. Software will be stored on EPROMs and all data will be held remotely by a network provider.

"ISPs," Hunter acknowledges, "are going to have to get used to that."

Acorn's NC is almost a one-chip computer, being based around the ARM7500FE--a fully-integrated RISC processor, video and I/O controller made by Advanced RISC Machines, of which Acorn owns 43%. It will ship with 4Mb of RAM, part of which will be used for caching, and a smart card reader.

The NC will ship with an 0800 setup number--stored in ROM--for every country in which it marketed. The first connection wil be to that number which will write the dialup number for a local POP into non-volatile memory. Acorn New Zealand managing director Peter Revell says it will be available in New Zealand "by early next year, at the latest".

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