As the first Network Computers chug toward store shelves this fall, start-up companies as well as established players such as AT&T are preparing services and standards intended to make the devices easier and more attractive to use.
For its part, AT&T is working with a number of undisclosed partners on standards that will enable NC users to sign up more easily with Internet service providers and to download software extensions such as a video viewer or audio plug-in, said Tom Evslin, vice president of AT&T WorldNet Services. "What we're looking at is ways to make life simpler so NCs can be cheaper," he said.
But while ISPs like AT&T are tentatively endorsing NCs, they aren't yet rushing to distribute the devices. Such concerted sales could significantly improve the chances of survival for the NC, a stripped-down device designed primarily for Internet access at a relatively affordable price of around $500.
"We don't think [NCs] will be a hugely important factor in driving Internet usage in homes," Evslin said. "My guess is that we'll see lower-priced PCs in homes before NCs. We can see a clear path to adoption in business though."
While AT&T and others collaborate on NC standards, one start-up company, NetChannel, is tailoring Internet access services to NC users.
Using a scaled-down version of Navigator, NetChannel plans to provide Internet access, email, selected Web pages based on an individual's interests, screening sites and shopping opportunities to fit the individual's profile.
That profile is stored partly on a Web site, partly on a "smart card" that the user carries with them. Each time the user inserts the card into a reader connected to a NC, the device knows automatically who that user is and directs them to the sites and services featured in their profile. The company has not finalized fees, but they are expected to be about $20 a month.
The company is predicating its strategy on the widespread availability of NCs, both in homes and in public places where users will access the Net in the same way they use payphones now.
"For the mass, prime-time market, the customers want information delivered to them that is relevant to their personal profiles or preferences, and they want it refreshed daily," said NetChannel president and CEO Dave Atkinson, was formerly an AT&T vice president and executive with EO, the now-defunct pen-based computing company.
The first NC device to offer the NetChannel services will be Acorn Computer's NetStation, one of the first implementations of Oracle's NC design. Herman Hauser, NetChannel's chairman and chief investor to date, also founded Acorn.
Oracle is helping NetChannel resell its services to other NC manufacturers as well, with NetChannel offering to give them a percentage of service fees. The company also expects to offer similar deals to content providers and to existing Internet service providers it contracts with for Net access. NetChannel itself expects to generate revenue from online marketers that sell to its subscribers.
While NetChannel is the first service provider announced for the NC, it faces competition from companies such as WebTV, which will offer a similar service for TV set-top boxes for the Internet.