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Net device takes new twist

A Detroit-based company founded by a former EDS engineer is building a Java-compliant Net computer that will use applets and network storage to provide Web access.

WebBook, a Detroit-based company with only ten employees plans to deliver a Net computer device by the fourth quarter that will use JavaSoft's Java Virtual Machine and a set of open interfaces to access the Web.

Aimed at consumers willing to pay $700 for portable Web access, the device will feature a 12-inch monochrome LCD display, a built-in trackpad, speakers, and a microphone. The device will include a 28.8-kbps modem card and an optional Ethernet link. Subsequent releases will include ISDN or cable-modem support, according to Charles Durett, founder of WebBook. The WebBook device, which will be powered by a 32-bit embedded microprocessor called ShBoom, will also include support for PCMCIA cards.

The key to making the WebBook work is Java. "Java was created with the underlying notion that the operating system it works with complies with Posix," explained Durett. Posix is a set of common system interfaces that enable software developers to create applications that work on multiple hardware platforms. "All we need is a layer that works with the Virtual Machine and tells the file system and network what to do."

Any Java applet will run on the device, said Durett. "I'm expecting a lot of applet activity for this."

Marketing WebBook will be tough, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group. "Positioned the right way, there are a lot of people out there who will pay a lot of money for a PDA. They could carve out a nice little niche market. But there's no way around the branding problem. At the $700 price point, WebBook would be the Rolls Royce of the PDA market, and you'd have to hook up with a premium image to make it work. People aren't going to pay $700 for a no-name brand," Enderle said.

A basic WebBook will include a 0.5MB of ROM and 4MB of RAM, said Durett. "What it does in terms of applications will be very much dictated by the Web," he noted. Some type of personal information management utilities will probably be added to the ROM within the system.

In order to get over the network-storage hurdle, Durett plans to enlist the help of Internet service providers (ISPs). Through partnerships with ISPs, the WebBook systems will provide users with "blocks of data that are kept on behalf of the subscriber on the ISP's server," Durett explained. The data will be stored with strong encryption so that the ISPs will not be able to read subscriber data. Because the WebBook devices will not be dedicated to particular users, any subscriber with a device and an account can link to his or her data. "These disks will be on the Net. We'll encrypt the hell out of the data. You'll have infinite storage and you'll never have to back it up," he added.

WebBook will not comply with the forthcoming Net computer design reference model promoted by Oracle and Acorn Research Group, said Durett. "We use the Java Virtual Machine as a reference model. That's all we need. Larry Ellison is still laboring under the notion that everyone wants 500 channels running on these things with a big database on the back end," said Durett.

Before founding WebBook last July, Durett spent nearly 15 years with EDS, the systems integrator.