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Mobile NC spec floated out

Tentative technical specifications for making mobile network computers are released amid growing skepticism about the Java NC.

Tentative technical specifications for making mobile network computers (NCs) were released today for public comment amid growing skepticism about the viability and market potential of the Java NC.

The Mobile Network Computer Reference Specifications, which are being developed by a consortium of companies that includes Sun Microsystems, Oracle, IBM, and Mitsubishi, set out common design and performance specifications for devices such as cellular phones, handheld devices, or other mobile computers that also can be hooked into a network and used as NCs.

The specifications focus on issues such as power management and data synchronization, said Eileen Tsoh, market development manager at Sun. Final specifications will come out later in the summer while products based around the standard will be out toward the end of the year.

While a joint specification should eliminate some of the compatibility problems plaguing desktop NCs, the specifications do not address the larger issues of whether the NC platform can adequately challenge Windows in the corporate environment, according to Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group.

The chief challenge for the NC revolves around infrastructure, Enderle and others have pointed out. To reap the cost benefits of Java-based NCs, corporate users have to invest in enterprisewide Java applications, which don't really exist yet in numbers. Meanwhile, Windows applications and the hardware that can run them are easy to find.

"Better than 90 percent of the environment is on Windows and the NC trials haven't run that well," he said. "With the exception of those from IBM, NCs have by and large been a nonplayer."

Mobile NCs will likely face stiff competition from the "Jupiter" class of Windows CE devices coming to the market now. Jupiter devices, which are roughly the same size as mini-notebooks, will cost between $500 and $1,200, a tough price point to beat for the size. More importantly, these CE devices can hook into existing Windows NT-based networks, making adoption easy.

The same manufacturers--such as Toshiba and Hitachi, which support the mobile Java standard--also make CE devices, dividing their loyalties.

Greg Blatnik, vice president at Zona Research also noted that the mobile NC specifications, and products based on them will be late to market. Cruise Technologies already is marketing the CruisePad, a portable device that can read both Windows terminal applications and Java applications.

"[Other] mobile devices that access Java are already on the market," Blatnik said. IBM, for one, has already signed a licensing agreement for the CruisePad.

Still, the fact that a mobile NC design is being promoted and made by a Java consortium should ease some customer complaints. "NCs haven't always been compatible with each other. You haven't been able to bring NCs from Sun and NCs from Oracle's NCI on the same network," Enderle said.

The mobile specifications will be further detailed at the JavaOne show next week in San Francisco. The tentative specifications will be open for public comment and criticism for 60 days with a final specification appearing in the summer.

Sun also will use the conference to reveal the first commercial version of the JavaStation.