Microsoft and Intel announced yesterday the specification for a NetPC - a jointly developed low-cost PC that will be significantly cheaper to administer than standard PCs, and provides an aggressive challenge to the Oracle-Sun network computer.
The announcement signals a massive climb-down by the world?s biggest software company, coming less than a year after Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates publicly snubbed Oracle chief Larry Ellison?s vision of a low cost, Internet-oriented network computer.
Microsoft and Intel will jointly develop the low cost NetPCs and leading PC manufacturers - including Compaq, Dell, Digital Equipment, Gateway2000, Hewlett Packard, Packard Bell and Texas Instruments - have announced plans to manufacture the devices, which are expected to be shipped next year.
Microsoft will provide a new version of its Windows operating system for the NetPCs, with built-in 'zero administration' features, aimed at reducing running costs to challenge the claimed ease of administration of the NC. Anne Mitchard, desktop systems marketing manager at Microsoft, said: ?The specification for the NetPC is a framework or a reference platform that the industry will use to come up with a sealed case PC. It is just part of Microsoft?s overall Zero Administration Initiative.? The idea is that non-technical consumers should be able to purchase a PC that requires no advanced support and can be kept running without opening the box or delving into the operating software.
According to Mitchard, the NetPC will offer system administrators more flexibility than NCs that are on the market today. ?People can either use the Network PC like a thin client, where the operating system and applications are held at the server and everything is centrally controlled, or they can still have processing power on the local hard disk and have applications, operating systems and data stored locally at the device. People will have the choice within this initiative so that they can cross the spectrum,? she said. The NC aims to shift the computing paradigm away from localised storage and processing towards the thin client, server-oriented model.
Observers applaud the notion of reducing PC administrative workload but question the reality behind Microsoft's tub-thumping. ?A zero administration initiative for Windows is a bit like a zero alcohol target for an alcoholic,? said Bloor. He added that he was entirely in favour of the concepts Intel and Microsoft are proposing but feels there is little from their announcement yesterday that shows how they intend to address the real world problems. ?You have to have a method. Microsoft has shown no evidence of a plan for how this device fits into a freely distributed environment.?
The initiative is evidently a direct response by the PC industry to the competitive challenge of network computers. But it is unlikely to besmirch the already gathered impetus of the NC. ?Microsoft is trend following and running scared - it has already been proven wrong in the marketplace,? said Robin Bloor, chief executive of market watchers Bloor Research.
Large businesses that are increasingly worried about the rising costs of administration and support of PCs linked to corporate networks have expressed strong interest in NCs. Already, as many as 70,000 NCs have been sold by Wyse Technologies - which, together with other companies that have adapted their terminals to fit the new market, is one of the only companies with products available. Sun Microsystems is today launching its Javastation NC, for which, analysts predict, there is much demand. Sun claims that the cost of its Javastations will be about $2,500 a year, about a quarter of the estimated annual costs of running a PC on a corporate network. IBM also has elaborate plans for a network computer or 'universal client', which will be shipping in the early part of next year.
Microsoft and Intel will lead an open design review to finalise the specification for the NetPC in the last quarter of 1996. Requirements of the NetPC will include the following: a 100MHZ Pentium processor or greater, a minimum of 16Mbytes hard disk, support for an internal hard disk for caching, an external keyboard connection, external pointing device connection, and VGA compatible display adapter with a minimum 640x480 resolution. They must also support either Ethernet, Token Ring, 28.8kbps modem, ISDN T1 or ATM.
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