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Boca adds NCI to set-top line

The hardware maker will use software from NCI in its Internet access devices, breathing some life into set-top boxes for the mass market.

Boca Research said it will use software from Network Computer Incorporated in Internet access devices, breathing some life into NCI's ongoing efforts to bring set-top computers to the mass market.

NCI, an affiliate of Oracle and Netscape Communications, received some bad news last month when the Internet service provider for RCA's set-top device stopped service, causing RCA to recall the few NCI software-equipped devices it had sold. The products were being pitched in the consumer market for Internet TV set-top devices, where WebTV is the primary competition.

NCI has also struggled to establish its NC (network computer) technology in the corporate world, which has adopted low-cost PC technologies for the most part rather than switch to NCs.

Boca says it will use NCI's TV Navigator software in a range of devices to be designed and manufactured by the company. The TV Navigator operating environment allows home users to access the Internet via their TV sets. The software, which essentially serves the same functions as the WebTV operating system, can also provide users access to email services.

In addition to being a boon to NCI, the deal also expands Boca's bid to transform itself from a modem maker to a "data communications" company. Boca is already making a set-top box for the business market that fits the bill as a NC. The device uses technology from Citrix that allows access to Windows applications such as Microsoft Office.

Larry Light, senior vice president of engineering for Boca, said that the new devices would be based on the Intel X86 architecture and would be offered along with current designs that are based on an ARM RISC processor from Cirrus Logic.

The devices would cost anywhere from $199 to $500 depending on configuration and would be offered to both the consumer and business markets by the fourth quarter of 1998. But instead of attempting to push set-top boxes through the retail sales channel, Boca and NCI are courting telephone companies, Internet service providers, and others to distribute the devices, Light said.

WebTV has had the most success in the retail stores to date, having sold an estimated 300,000 units in a year and a half. But a broader market may not develop until cable companies and others distribute the devices in homes and charge a low monthly fee for use of the set-top computers.