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The evolution of Compaq

Compaq Vice President Kevin Bohren tells of his company's plans for the corporate desktop in an interview with NEWS.COM.

Compaq Computer (CPQ) plans a slow but steady evolution of the personal computer into a more network-centric, low-cost device. Although the thin client revolution won't occur as quickly as some might hope, the ultimate result of this transformation may be a computer that is radically different from what we use today.

NetPC, the Microsoft and Intel response to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's network computer in the thin client hype wars, hasn't yet been fully defined. Nevertheless, Compaq already has a relatively clear vision of where the NetPC is going.


Bohren talks PC evolution
The current preliminary definition of the NetPC includes at least a 100-MHz Pentium processor running Windows 95 or Windows NT and 16MB of memory. Beyond that, the most cited feature is that the designs will have limited expandability in a "sealed-case" design. While the NC is totally server-centric and has no local storage, the NetPC will likely offer a hard drive. The NC will rely on Java as the language that will deliver applications, while the NetPC will likely use Windows NT.

NEWS.COM recently talked with Kevin Bohren, vice president of Compaq's desktop PC division, to find out what the corporate desktop is going to look like in the distant and not-so-distant future.

Is the era of network computers (NCs) upon us? "We don't necessarily see [the NC] as a new class of computing. We believe it's going to evolve," Bohren said. "That's probably the biggest discrepancy [between us and] what Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems would say. He believes it's a total new paradigm, and frankly, I believe people hate new paradigms. People don't like change. People like to evolve slowly."

Bohren makes the analogy of switching from a car (the PC) with a big engine that "gets you there fast" to a bike (the NC), where the user is peddling and "you're really dependent on the network."

Compaq's definition of the NetPC, he said, is an evolution of PCs that will give users more capabilities, more control, and better return on investment. The one thing that both Compaq and Sun agree on is that the networked environment is here to stay, according to Bohren, so intranet and Internet access will be necessities. But the problem is that people may not want to give control over to the network managers so quickly and so completely.


Bohren on why NCs won't change the world overnight
"We all know what its like to get in to work at 8 a.m. and watch the network bomb when everybody starts hopping on it...Imagine if everybody was dependent on running their applications and email on the network vs. being able to do their own thing," Bohren posited.

Another problem is that the Java applications NCs are dependent on are not as prevalent as applications for the Windows environment, he noted. This, in addition to people's desire to customize their own desktops, will dictate how NetPCs will evolve.


Bohren says we'll see first sealed PCs in mid-1997
At first, designs won't be very radical. "I think you'll see what I call first attempts at [sealed-case PCs] in the second half of 1997. Again, it's a question of how bold will manufacturers get. Do you go slotless? Do you go bayless? I think the answer is 'no' at first. There has to be this natural parting of the old environment going to the new," Bohren said.

Slots and bays will be the first items to disappear in the second generation of NetPCs because in most cases, they are going unused in corporate settings. "They always bought it for security. We even ship systems with bays for CD-ROMs, but [buyers] just don't want this stuff in there."

Local storage will stay because users are used to the comfort of knowing something is close at hand and available rather than dependent on a server at a remote location. Where more additions will be made in 1997 are in what Bohren calls "corporate telephony," which will enable people to send faxes and make phone calls using their computers, he predicted.

By 1998, Bohren feels that there will be more acceptance of the thin-client philosophy as well as technological developments that will enable manufacturers to take some design risks.


Bohren's thoughts on the future of PC designs
"Over time, you are going to see designs get much more modular....What I think is going to make this move toward this sealed approach much faster is things like USB [Universal Serial Bus] and IEEE 1394 [Firewire specification]. You've got new ways to add peripherals which are speedier, and over time, more cost effective," he said.

In 1998, Bohren estimates users will see designs where the processor complex comes in one module, and modules for hard drives or CD-ROM's can be added by just stacking one on top of another in a design similar to that of stereo components.

"But again, the key there is manageability and security. You have to alert MIS when something is removed. As they get excited about design [possibilities], there's also resistance," Bohren cautioned.