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Umax to build Intel NCs

The question about NCs is why? The cost savings the NC platform is supposed to deliver may not be that significant.

Umax Data Systems has announced that it will start selling network computers (NCs) based on Intel processors and software from Network Computers Inc. (NCI) this November, although observers have noted that the actual cost savings the NC platform is supposed to deliver may not be that significant.

The Umax NC will contain a 200-MHz Pentium processor and use the NC Desktop, a client-side software package from NCI, an Oracle subsidiary. The package includes a browser, word processor, email, and other productivity applications. Umax's NC will cost under $700.

But costs don't end here. To use the NC customers will have to also invest in the NC Administration Server, added Randy Brasche, a spokesman for NCI. NC Administration Server allows the NC to talk to the network and is a critical component for making the NC package work. Administration Server costs $975 for a minimum five users and runs on Solaris from Sun and some variants of Unix.

It does not currently run on Windows NT but this capability is expected to be added by the end of the year.

Consumers and small businesses that want to use NCs will likely get support from Internet service providers, a channel NCI is currently trying to build.

Although debates on the NC have often focused on the NC box itself, it is the software associated with the boxes that make the NC a tough sell. Potential customers essentially have to create parallel networks, or at least supplement existing networks, to get them to work as well as install new applications. Moreover, because the industry is new, selection remains limited.

"What's the pitch?...You've got to de-install something to use it," said Karl Wilhelm, vice president at SRA International, a large corporate integrator that works with both Microsoft and Oracle. "They need to build some server software...It's such an unknown."

Wilhelm related that at a recent convention, a speaker asked an audience of integrators and consultants how many of them had interest in NCs. No one raised his hand.

"The big question is the server," commented Eileen O'Brien, an analyst at International Data Corporation. "Are you just taking stuff off of the desktop and putting it on the server?"

While an NC system will likely save certain customers costs over the long term, exact savings are difficult to calculate at the moment. There have been too few test cases to base a judgment upon. "It won't be until the end of the year or next year until folks really know," she said. Potential markets, she added, include education and current terminal users.

The device will be first marketed to large corporate users in Europe and later rolled out in North America, Umax said.