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NCI makes the network connection

Network Computer forges into the embedded software market with eNavigator, used to connect devices to the Internet.

Emboldened by recent deals with foreign cable and telco providers, Network Computer Incorporated today forged ahead into the market for embedded devices, offering software for connecting office equipment, handheld computers, automotive systems, and more to the Internet.

Fujitsu Intertop
Fujitsu Intertop

The company announced "eNavigator" software, which is used in conjunction with an embedded operating system to offer previously unconnected devices the ability to receive email, automatic software updates, or information delivery, among other potential uses.

"It's a natural extension of the things NCI has been doing," said Greg Blatnik, vice president of Zona Research. "They started out looking into the consumer space with home set-tops boxes, and also the corporate space with the NC concept, and now the Navio navigator technology [NCI's software] certainly lends itself to an embedded, small footprint kind of device," he added.

NCI's eNavigator will be used in conjunction with operating system software from companies such as Wind River Systems to power everything from gas pumps to laser printers. Wind River, a leading embedded systems software developer, is the first licensee of eNavigator. The firm will offer eNavigator with its own VxWorks operating system software, the companies said today.

NCI said the first device to use the software is a new palm-sized computer from Fujitsu being offered in Japan.

Embedded software is essentially any software that doesn't get inserted into standard desktop computers. It is characterized by the ability to perform a limited number of tasks along with a demand for reliable operation. The market for embedded software is vast, and it is increasingly being targeted by big-name technology companies.

Zona estimates that the market for consumer Internet access devices--which doesn't count opportunities in products that consumers don't buy directly, such as industrial control systems--will reach about $400 million this year on sales of 1.3 million Internet-enabled phones, handheld computers, pagers, and other similar devices.

"This is literally on almost every vendor's screen. It's the next big opportunity," Blatnik said. NCI, which once aspired to knock Microsoft's Windows operating system off the corporate desktop with Java-based software for network computers, is now competing against the giant again in the market for embedded software--a market in which the software giant is much less formidable.

The company also will be competing with companies such as Spyglass and Planetweb, as well as the Consumer Electronics Solutions division of Sun, which Sun formed when it acquired appliance-software maker Diba in 1997.

Spyglass, the Naperville, Illinois-based software company, recently scored a coup when it announced its Web browser software would be compatible with Microsoft's Windows CE OS for embedded devices in an effort to target the same market NCI is targeting.

The news follows a string of successes for NCI in the cable and telco service industries.

Sources report that NCI is on the verge of signing a deal with America Online to provide software for an as-yet-undisclosed design for Internet set-top boxes.

Earlier, NCI announced that it would provide set-top software to Belgium's telephone company and in May, Cable and Wireless, the British cable provider, said it would use NCI software in its digital set-top boxes. CW has an estimated 11 million subscribers.