British company claims early lead with network computer

The Acorn Computer Group of Cambridge, England, says it will be among the first to organise the manufacture and distribution of network computers, the low-cost Internet machines that Oracle and others have been promoting as the new wave of computing to follow on from the PC.

Acorn says that it will launch products by September, and it has also demonstrated a prototype NC based on the StrongARM processor that it has jointly developed with Digital Equipment. The company has also revealed that, as part of its interactive television trial in Cambridge, it has already enabled users to connect to the World Wide Web via televisions connected to set-top boxes.

The announcement, being made to coincide with an Oracle press conference in the US yesterday, comes four months after Acorn entered into an agreement with Oracle to develop reference designs for a range of easy- to-use, low-cost computing devices based upon open Internet standards.

Acorn has capitalised on its work with sister company Advanced RISC Machines, in which it has a 43% stake, to create chips for low-cost interactive TV devices, such as set-top boxes. These devices share many common features with the NC such as the use of networks and sophisticated graphics from a low-cost chip set.

"For years Acorn has been focusing its efforts on making the benefits of computing technology more widely accessible," says Malcolm Bird, CEO of Acorn's network computing division. "The whole industry has been slowly heading in this direction, and finally we are entering the fourth wave of computing. We've gone from the mainframe, to the minicomputer, to the PC and now the network computer, with each wave costing less, being easier to use and offering access to more and more people. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's vision is one we fully believe in as the next step towards reaching the general consumer, and we're aiming to make it happen as quickly and as simply as we can."

Through the Cambridge Interactive Television Trial, which Acorn has managed since 1994, the company says it has already tested Web access from low-cost set-top boxes. Making use of a broadband network, participants have been able to download video and CD-quality audio from Web sites while seated in front of their TV.

The current network computing devices developed by Acorn are based on the ARM7500FE, an integrated RISC processor, video and I/O controller, which is cheap to produce and has low power consumption.

Acorn yesterday demonstrated a NC based on the more powerful StrongARM chip. The 200MHz StrongARM increases performance five-fold to better than 300,000 Dhrystones, says Acorn. The first finished StrongARM network computer product design will be ready next year, says Acorn.

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