IBM to show prototype network computer

IBM plans to demonstrate a prototype of its Network Computer -- a thin client designed to pull together the worlds of host-based, client/server, and Internet computing -- following the rollout of a Network Computer specification this week that has garnered support from a wide variety of vendors.

IBM's AS/400 Thin Client, a PowerPC-based device, will access any Java-enabled IBM system, including AS/400, RS/6000, S/390 and PC servers, as well as non-IBM host systems, IBM says.

The AS/400 Thin Client will run an IBM-developed suboperating system that links the client to the server, officials say. Users will be greeted by a Windows-like graphical interface that features an icon bar from which they can launch a Web browser or access other applications, such as Lotus Notes, that are running on the server, IBM says. It will also provide for 5250 and 3270 terminal emulation.

IBM believes the AS/400 Thin Client will provide an alternative for organisations fed up with the high costs of client/server computing, which represents more than 10% of the company's most favoured accounts, says Bob Dies, general manager of IBM's AS/400 division, in Somers, New York.

"It's less logical for each user to have a complete set of files on the desktop," Dies says.

Because the AS/400 Thin Client can connect to a range of IBM and non-IBM servers, users will be able to concurrently access Windows, Unix, Java and host-based applications, IBM officials say.

Companies that have licensed Java and announced plans to embed the programming environment into their host-based OSes include Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment. Sun, the developer of Java, is also supporting the environment on its high- end servers.

With no local storage and limited processing power, the AS/400 Thin Client will be completely server-controlled, allowing users to download applications on demand.

IBM will begin beta testing the machines soon and plans to ship them in volume quantities during the second half of the year. Officials won't comment on pricing, but earlier this year IBM officials said entry prices for its first thin clients would be at least US$1000.

IBM will position the AS/400 Thin Client as the middle ground between dumb terminals and full-fledged PCs, combining the simplicity and low price of the former with the application-access breadth of the latter.

The device's dimensions are half those of a standard notebook, sources say. The computer will come configured with a 403 PowerPC processor, 4Mb to 32Mb of RAM, Token Ring or Ethernet connections, a printer, serial and audio ports, a PC Card slot, dial-up capabilities for remote access, a mouse and a keyboard.

The product will be sold by multiple IBM divisions. Software to let the AS/400 Thin Client attach to servers will be offered in current and future versions of the OS/400 operating system, as well as in other IBM platforms, officials say.

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