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NC standard on the way

The Open Group will establish a testing and branding process for third-party makers of network computers. Microsoft, for one, doesn't seem that interested.

The Open Group, a network computer (NC) standards group originally formed and funded by the NC proponents, will establish a testing and branding process for third-party manufacturers that will allow them to ensure customers that their products comply with the NC framework.

Unfortunately for the NC proponents, however, the value of an "NC Approved" sticker for hardware makers is debatable at the present because Microsoft (MSFT) has yet to submit to the Open Group's authority.

Under the plan outlined by the Open Group and the major NC proponents, the Open Group will 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.

NCs sit at the middle of a server-heavy computing architecture promoted by Sun Microsystems (SUNW), Network Computer Inc., Oracle (ORCL), and others. Under the NC vision, data and applications reside on back-end servers and are downloaded to an NC only when needed. While this eliminates some of the autonomy associated with PCs, NC proponents claim the structure will promote ubiquitous computing, with users accessing their email or private files from public kiosks, remote offices, or their homes through a smart card.

Initially, the certification procedures will focus on establishing standards for NCs themselves, said Ed Harbour, director of strategy for the NC division at IBM (IBM). If successful, such a standard would allow "multiple client types of different manufacturers attaching to a common server," he said. "We're very close today to having one server boot multiple clients," he added.

Devising a common platform for NCs has been in progress for some time and has been called the Network Computer Reference Profile. With the official passing of this work to the Open Group, the profile will now be called the Network Computer Profile, the group said.

Next, the Group will establish certification tests for servers to ensure that servers from different manufacturers can be managed in the same way. Such interoperability is expected to ease the adoption process for customers.

The only thing missing from the picture, really, is the support of Microsoft, which makes the NC approval process nearly academic, said Rob Enderle, senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group. "Microsoft views the Open Group more as a competitor than someone they want to work with," he said. "The Open Group is more of a consortium of vendors. They are primarily focused on anti-Microsoft ideas."

With Microsoft in its own camp, third-party hardware vendors have a choice of either developing for the Windows family or the NC platform. And right now, the Windows platform remains more attractive for a number of reasons, including a large, established customer base. In the final analysis, interoperability remains a software issue, he said.

Despite the non-participation of Microsoft, Open Group members said that they will cooperate with Microsoft and Windows vendors.