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MS, Intel show off NetPCs

The computer giants demonstrate NetPCs to show that they are serious about pushing these next-generation machines as corporate desktops.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT) have demonstrated NetPCs over the last two days to indicate that the two computer giants are serious about promoting these next-generation machines for corporate desktops.

Today in Houston at a conference sponsored by Compaq Computer, Intel demonstrated a prototype NetPC with a 233-MHz Pentium II Processor.

Microsoft, for its part, was demonstrating its Zero Administration Windows running on a NetPC at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference here.

The NetPC is being promoted as a computing environment that will make heavy use of servers for PC management, automatic software updates, and, in some cases, running applications. This initiative, the theory goes, will save lots of money for companies investing thousands of dollars each year to maintain PCs.

Currently, computers are often managed by information systems personnel who must physically perform software upgrades and general troubleshooting on every PC. This can be costly for a company with hundreds or thousands of desktop machines.

Backers say NetPCs would eliminate this labor-intensive maintenance because upgrades and management can be done off servers, which would broadcast the necessary data over the network.

Systems based on the NetPC design guidelines are expected to be available from PC manufacturers by midyear. Top-tier vendors such as Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard are expected to bring out NetPCs. Compaq said recently that it will abandon its plans for a pure network computer and instead concentrate on the NetPC as a technology for both low-end "dumb terminal" replacements as well as more traditional, low-cost network-centric PCs.

Surprisingly, Intel was demonstrating a very high-performance NetPC, which in some respects contradicts what a NetPC purports to offer: a low-cost computer with a modest processor and a modest set of features in a sealed case.

"Businesses need high-performance clients to be competitive and [PC management] innovations to reduce computing costs," said Andrew Grove, chief executive officer of Intel, speaking at the Compaq conference.

The demonstration featured a streaming-video business application, where video is fed into the application. In the management portion of the demonstration, a NetPC was configured remotely from a server computer using Intel's LANDesk Configuration Manager. Another part of the demonstration showed Web-based remote control and problem resolution using Intel LANDesk technology.

At the WinHEC conference, meanwhile, Microsoft has been demonstrating its Zero Administration Windows, or ZAW, on a NetPC.

ZAW, which will be available for both Windows NT and Windows 95, can make drives inaccessible and rearrange the user's desktop. In a demonstration, Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and CEO, showed a minimalist desktop interface where the user sees only one or two applications that a user might need, according to Gates.

Gates also showed how the user's "state"--all the application and configuration information pertaining to a PC--can be saved on the server computer. This allows a user to go to any computer on a network, download his state information, and be ready to work.

The NetPC specification, officially dubbed the "Network PC System Design Guidelines: A Reference for Designing Net PC Systems for Use with the Microsoft Windows and Windows NT Operating Systems" is being completed this month by Intel and coauthors Microsoft, Compaq, Dell Computer, and Hewlett-Packard.