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Toshiba turns standard on its head

Toshiba is using an initiative intended to define a new kind of consumer PC to launch a new kind of business PC.

Toshiba is planning to use a new design intended primarily for consumer PCs to launch a new breed of business personal computers.

The company is aiming to introduce a PC later this year that would incorporate many of the technologies proposed as part of the Simply Interactive PC initiative, a standard proposed for a new kind of home PC that was introduced last year at WinHEC. The SIPC initiative is supported by Microsoft, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba. Compaq, HP, and Toshiba have all demonstrated prototype consumer devices based on SIPC.

SIPC was intended to define strictly consumer PCs, but the new Toshiba machine will actually be aimed at the business market, according to Michael Wagner, director desktop marketing at the computer systems division of Toshiba.

This is a surprise because the same players that backed SIPC had also supported a separate initiative, the NetPC initiative, to define server-managed corporate PCs. Both SIPC and NetPC were intended to rebut Oracle and its Network Computer, a kind of Internet terminal that threatened to undermine Microsoft-Intel's stronghold in PC design.

Toshiba's decision makes clear that there is some confusion, or at least difference of opinion, among the major vendors on the function of these two new PC specifications.

Toshiba is expected to announce its entrance into the business market next Monday with its first line of corporate desktops. While the first set of systems will use a more conventional design, the SIPC-based machines will eventually be part of this new line.

Toshiba's SIPC device will be a sealed-case business PC designed so that customers can add peripherals and upgrade components without ever opening the box. The systems may support one or more external drive bays, where a variety of devices can be swapped in and out, including hard drives, CD-ROM drives, and floppy drives. Memory upgrades will also be done externally, according to Toshiba. The novel machine could also be offered with a LCD monitor instead of a CRT display, Toshiba said.

NetPCs, on the other hand, are described as being quite different. NetPCs are not expected to have floppy disk drives and offer very restricted access to storage devices and other hardware.

Specfically, the NetPC is loosely defined as a corporate PC that will rely heavily on server computers for automated management. The major NetPC proponents are Microsoft and Intel.

While these two companies see a distinction between SIPC and NetPC, Toshiba apparently does not.

"SIPC was originally envisioned for the consumer, but we see it as evolving into the NetPC," Wagner said. Part of the reason for this lack of distinction is based on the fact that the critical differences between NetPC and SIPC are defined, to a large extent, by the software, not the hardware. An SIPC-based device could potentially be offered as a server-centric PC, functionally equivalent to a NetPC.

Moreover, Toshiba could elect to pare down its SIPC-based computers to more closely resemble a NetPC.

Some of the confusion may be cleared up at this year's WinHEC in April when Microsoft is expected to spell out the differences between the SIPC and the NetPC specification. "SIPC is an initiative only. The technology can enable both sides, consumer and business, we see why there could be some confusion," said Stacey Breyfogle, product manager of the personal business systems at Microsoft.

Microsoft will also spell out how the design has resulted in concrete implementation of technologies such as "On Now," according to Breyfogle. With On Now, a PC can be instantly be turned on and off, much like a TV.