Ellison's not-quite-a-PC fetches top dollar on Amazon

The first 10 Web-browsing devices sell for a hefty $1,650 each in a recent auction, even though they will retail for less than $330.

Although analysts have questioned the ultimate viability of Larry Ellison's network computer venture, the first 10 of the new devices sold for a hefty $1,650 each in an auction on today.

Eight of the individually numbered "limited edition" computers from New Internet Computer Company went to a single bidder, the head of WebOS, a Columbia, Md.-based software company looking to market a Web-based computer operating system.

WebOS CEO Shervin Pishevar said he plans to donate 7 of the 8 units to the Washington, D.C., school district and keep one to see how the machine works.

"Ellison has been talking about the vision for a while, but this is really something that's out there," Pishevar said. "We want to take a look at it and see what it's like."

Each of the 10 units came with a certificate of authenticity signed by Ellison, NICC's chairman who is better known as Oracle's CEO.

Ellison owns the vast majority of privately held NICC.

Meanwhile, NICC began selling the $199 mass-market versions of the New Internet Computer, along with $129 monitors, from its Web site.

"I just thought the fact that he's signing it and the fact they're the first 10 makes it a lot more valuable," Pishevar said of the units. The auction had been scheduled to close at about 12:40 p.m. PT today but was extended as the bids kept coming. It ended about an hour later.

The New Internet Computer, or NIC, does not come with a hard drive and runs on the open-source Linux operating system. The sleek black unit is powered by a Pentium-compatible chip from Cyrix, and its lone drive is a CD-ROM.

The NIC is the successor to the failed Network Computer, which Oracle introduced in 1997. NICC, in fact, uses the same logo as the Oracle subsidiary that was known as Network Computer.

The idea behind both devices is the same: to put most of the computing muscle and complexity in a network, with a stripped-down terminal used to access programs and resources from a network.

But the Network Computer was introduced as PC prices started falling, eliminating much of the cost advantage. Ellison's brainchild fell flat commercially, although Network Computer eventually went into the software business and was renamed Liberate Technologies.

The debut of the NIC comes as the pioneer in the desktop Internet appliance business, Netpliance, has hiked the cost of its Web-browsing units to $399 from $99. Netpliance said today that the new units will not be on retail shelves until September, while it has stopped taking new orders for the original $99 machines.

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Analysts have questioned whether consumers will pay close to PC prices for Internet appliances that are primarily designed for Web surfing.

"They really need to be in the $200 range" with a monitor included, ARS analyst Matt Sargent said recently. "If not, (consumers) will spend a few hundred dollars more and get a PC."

However, some appeared to like the NIC, which can be combined with free Internet service from NetZero.

"For $199 and no monthly ISP fees, this is an irresistible second computer," said Randy Padawer of Knoxville, Tenn., who today ordered one of the NIC units from the company.

Plenty of people were sad to have missed out on the pricier limited editions.

Software developer Carl Dietz, who was narrowly outbid, said he would have paid more for the unit. However, he left for the store half an hour before the auction was to have ended, confident that his maximum bid of $1,600 was enough.

"I just thought it was a really neat moment in history," Dietz said. "And I would have liked to have had Larry Ellison's autograph."

Both Dietz and Dennis Warren, another tech industry worker who was outbid, said they believe in the idea of network computing and wanted a piece of history.

"As a collector, I think it would be pretty cool to have," said Warren, who also counts an early copy of DOS and a prototype of Apple's eMate among his family's tech treasures.

NICC chief executive Gina Smith said she is pleased with the initial response and the auction results.

"I just wanted it to get to the retail price," she said.