Just as it established a hardware standard for the emerging PC market in the early 80s, IBM (IBM) is attempting to put its stamp on the emerging network computer industry by pitching its server software as an industry standard.
According to Howie Hunger, vice president of channels and distribution for IBM's NC division, the company is offering its Network Station Manager server software to NC makers and to standards body The Open Group as a model for managing network computers.
The Open Group is already working on a plan to finalize reference specifications and tests for NC hardware and software. Manufacturers who want to build NC products will be able to consult the specifications, develop their products, and then submit them for approval. If approved by the Open Group, the manufacturer will then be able to advertise that the device complies with Group standards.
IBM is attempting to take a leadership role in NC standard setting by tacking its server-based management software onto the existing NC reference specification.
Hunger said: "Although NCs are made the same way, no server software exists that conforms to any specifications. That makes it a problem to configure NCs to boot from different manufacturers' servers. IBM has decided to share its Network Station Manager software with other makers so you can have Sun servers boot an IBM Network Station or have IBM servers boot Sun Java stations."
The company also plans to license the software to makers of NC hardware and software. Hunger declined to name the makers, but said he "expects announcements shortly from key vendors of NC hardware and software." Sources expect Sun Microsystems and Oracle's Network Computer subsidiary will sign on to the plan.
Hunger said that in the next few months, IBM will hold formal standards discussions with NC vendors and representatives of The Open Group to iron out just how the specification will be rolled out. IBM also must determine how much, if any, compensation it wants from NC vendors for its software.
However, Hunger is confident that the software will be adopted by the industry. "We expect to see this [debut] from vendors in the first half of 1998," he said.
Despite initial hype that NCs might possibly displace a sizable share of the PC market, analysts now say the low-cost machines will play a niche role, at best, in business settings.
A study released by Zona Research last month found that of 137 senior IT buyers and decision-makers, only 15 percent of respondents plan to deploy thin clients within the next three years. Of the 117 respondents with no NC plans, 44 percent said they're not interested in thin clients because they're not PCs, and another 44 percent cited bandwidth and network concerns.
Hunger said IBM "sees [NCs] as a growing and lucrative market."
Merrill Lynch, in a report published this month, said IBM is involved in 300 to 400 NC pilot projects and could ship more than 100,000 NCs this year.