Microsoft admitted this week that it "would not walk away" from the network computer market, confirming a U-turn in its strategy.
Instead of just offering its NetPC specification as an alternative to the NC touted by Oracle and Sun, it will launch a Windows Based Terminal (WBT) by the end of the year - "an NC by any other name," said analysts.
This reverses Microsoft's previous strategy to fight off the challenge to Wintel from the NC camp. Instead, it will provide its own version, but will position it very differently from the NetPC. The WBT will be targeted at the terminal replacement market, while the NetPC will be for existing PC sites, which want to simplify maintenance, administration and lower cost of ownership. The NC claims to be able to meet both these demands.
So far, Hewlett-Packard and terminal makers NCD and Wyse have come out in support of the WBT specification, while many PC makers including Compaq have committed to NetPC.
The main difference between the WBT and the NC will be the interface - Microsoft's technology will, predictably, have Windows CE, the cut-down version of Windows for handhelds, as its native operating system, while NCs typically rely on a a browser or Java virtual machine. In the WBT model, JVM and the browser would have to run on an NT server, not locally, US reports claimed - clearly enabling Microsoft to retain its control of the desktop environment. Next year, Microsoft will launch its multiuser operating system, codenamed Hydra, which will be positioned to support thin clients from an NT server.
But one source within Microsoft suggested the company may develop another scaled-down Windows variant especially for later releases of the WBT. This would be far closer to full-blown Windows, and have fully compatible files, which CE lacks. Microsoft would not officially comment on this.
Whatever the OS, the WBT will basically be a dumb terminal with the OS in Rom, a display and no local storage. It will use the T.Share protocol for data transfer, even though Citrix, with whom Microsoft has a technology agreement in other areas, claims its alternative ICA protocol is far faster. Last week, Citrix formed an industry body of companies supporting ICA as a standard for communications with thin clients, but Microsoft was conspicuous by its absence (see previous story).
The specifications for WBT will be available to OEMs in the autumn with first products expected early next year - some way behind the first NCs. "But we are using proven technology. To adopt an NC strategy a company needs to make a commitment to something new, Java," said a Microsoft US insider. "Terminal users have had terminals this long, they'll wait a bit longer."
Meanwhile, in another twist, PC maker NEC said it had ported Windows CE to its implementation of the Mips Risc processor, and is targeting the combination at NCs and other appliances such as Internet telephones that will run embedded CE applications. CE now runs on Intel, Digital/Strongarm, Hitachi and Philips processors for handhelds.
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