Vendors lay foundation for new class of low-cost computer

Five of the IT industry's top vendors and dozens of other supporters from across the globe rallied around the Network Computer Reference Profile 1 early this week, setting the stage for a new class of low-cost, simplified device that leverage Internet standards and technologies.

Apple, IBM, Netscape Communications, Oracle and Sun have unveiled a common set of guidelines in San Francisco that any number of companies can use to build appliances suited to specific networking needs -- from corporate desktop terminals to satellite-connected wireless PDAs to home-based entertainment platforms.

The Network Computer Reference Profile is a list of established software specifications that, when implemented, will allow products to wear the NC trademark. The list of NC specifications is short and includes support for Java, HTML, HTTP, FTP, SMTP, TCP/IP and Common Gateway Interface. The list is expected to grow, however.

"We'll evolve the profile as standards emerge," says John Thompson, IBM senior vice-president and group executive. "It's a major step forward, but we're just at the starting gate," he says. "It's good for us all to be on the same track."

A published draft of the NC profile for adjustment will be available on July 1, and the final draft is expected in August, officials say. Preliminary drafts will be available at http://www.nc.ihost.com/.

The standards, if widely adopted across many hardware devices, hold the potential for any and all content displayed on Web sites to be accessible and utilised by any NC-approved platform, from US$200 on up. And all NC-approved devices will be able to communicate across the Internet, regardless of the microprocessor or operating system in them.

The potential is mind-boggling given the diversity of companies backing the initiative. Among the companies endorsing the initiative are some of the world's largest makers of consumer and business electronics, telecommunications carriers, software developers, wireless systems makers, microprocessor fabricators, peripherals manufacturers and credit card companies.

Conspicuously missing from the list of initial backers: Microsoft and Intel.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison says Microsoft was alerted last week to the alliance and declined to take part in the debut. Thompson, head of IBM's software divisions, also says that Microsoft was contacted but declined to participate.

Ellison nonetheless expects that both Microsoft and Intel will eventually join in backing the NC reference standards.

"Microsoft will adopt these standards in time," says Ellison, who often poked fun and criticisms at Microsoft during a 90-minute presentation to the press and analysts. "They have no choice, whether we talk to them or not."

Several of the reference profile adopters are already shipping or testing devices that provide a glimpse at what the NC standards could lead to.

Apple, for example, has its Pippin device that, according to Apple head Gil Amelio, will soon ship with the ability to connect wirelessly to the Internet and browse the Web. Such a product will incorporate the Java programming language into the Pippin OS.

Although final specifications of Apple's Pippin are not expected to be set in time for the announcement, the product will be in the US$500 price range, sources say.

Motorola is also expected to be on hand to endorse the NC specification and could announce its own plans to develop and market a version of Pippin for OEMs, sources close to Motorola say.

Motorola officials won't comment on their plans, but Motorola Computer Group vice-president Joe Guglielmi says that "given Motorola's interest in communications products, we would obviously be happy about anything that brought standards to the industry."

And a spokesman for Netscape has hinted at development of a "thin browser" culled from the Navigator products that would run on NCs within a 12-month time frame.

IBM for its part is first and foremost targeting the corporate user with its NC programmes. IBM is conducting pilot projects in the United States and Europe of a NC device targeted at corporate enterprises to give IS managers new, less expensive options for upgrading "dumb" terminals or for providing email and database access devices to new employees.

IBM demonstrated on Monday a prototype of a thin client based on the NC specifications. It runs on a PowerPC 603 chip with a Posix Unix variant as the kernel that acts as the operating system. The prototype uses a standard monitor and keyboard, and ports are provided for a printer, serial and audio attachments, a PC Card slot, dial-up capabilities for remote access, and a mouse.

The black IBM NC sat upright and only a little larger than an external modem. It was lighter than most subnotebook PCs. It was connected via an ethernet network, though frame relay and other interfaces are being developed. The US$500 to US$1000 device is able to quickly surf the Web as well as access a number of types of new and legacy data, including:

HTML front-ends to AS/400 server applications.

Browser access to Lotus Notes from a PC server running Windows NT.

A Java front-end to access CICS for OS/390.

Java access to DB2 on an AIX server.

With no local storage and limited processing power, the IBM NC 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.

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. IBM expects the devices to attract IS managers who are upgrading the 30 million terminals currently in use. It also expects the thin clients to appeal to workers who only need email, Internet access and database access.

It is just those types of users, says Oracle's Ellison, that form what he estimates is 95% of what today's PCs are being employed to do.

"Customers will gobble these up in numbers we've not seen in PCs. The goal of the NC is nothing less than universal service," says Ellison. "It will change everything."

Initial endorsers of the NC this week include: Acorn, Adobe, Advanced RISC Machines (ARM), Alcatel Business Systems Germany, British Telecom, Cirrus Logic, Corel, Digital, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Japan Telecom, Lexmark, Lotus, LSI Logic, Macromedia, Matsushita, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Olivetti, Pyramid Technology, SGS-Thompson Microelectronics, Toshiba, VLSI Technology and Wyse Technology.

Cirrus Logic has offered its RISC-based ARM chip, which features integrated graphics, audio, and video capabilities, as a basis for the NC.

Also part of this week's announcement: Oracle's founding of a wholly owned subsidiary, Network Computer, that will be responsible for distributing Oracle's NC software.

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