The company has been quietly testing the waters for such devices in San Francisco this week at the JavaOne conference.
The company has been giving selected customers sneak peeks at two different models of mobile network computers, one a diminutive, 1.9-pound device dubbed the "Mini Note NC," the other a 2.2-pound "NC Document Viewer" that uses a pen input interface.
Toshiba has already established itself as one of the premier manufacturers of notebook PCs, both in terms of market share and brand-name recognition. It will draw on this in-house expertise for building and selling the new portable NCs.
The Mini Note NC runs the Java operating system and comes with a 100-MHz 486 processor from Advanced Micro Devices, a company that wants to establish itself in the one area where rival Intel is vulnerable: the chip market for portable devices.
The Mini Note NC also features a 6.1-inch 640-by-480 resolution active-matrix LCD screen, one slot for credit-card-size PC cards, 16MB of memory, a modem or local network connection, and a small keyboard.
Toshiba has already been marketing a very similar device in Japan as an ultra-portable PC for running Windows 95.
The "NC Document Viewer" is more akin to a "dumb" terminal than an NC. Unlike the Mini Note, it doesn't have a powerful processor and is used exclusively for downloading and viewing documents--not editing. It offers an 11.3-inch gray-scale active-matrix LCD, two PC Card slots, 16MB of memory, support for Flash memory storage, and a modem or network connection.
Toshiba says the NC Document Viewer would be useful for people who carry around a large number of documents to conduct business, such as salespeople. Instead of lugging the paperwork around, all of the data could be downloaded dynamically from a server computer and viewed on the lightweight device.
Toshiba is not the only vendor interested in mobile NCs.
Mitsubishi has also been at JavaOne showing off its MonAMI-II, a Java-based mobile NC weighing less than two pounds that is designed to access networks through a wireless LAN. The company also showed the MonAMI/ES, a diskless model that uses a 12.1-inch active-matrix LCD screen to save space.
While the market for NCs is still unproven, not to mention the market for portable NCs, Toshiba is well-placed to control this niche if customers respond to the idea. Mitsubishi, on the other hand, has never been a particularly strong computer vendor but may be looking for an opportunity to establish itself in the emerging NC market.