LAS VEGAS--While most of the buzz at Fall Comdex '97 this week centered around Microsoft's plans for Windows terminals, Umax Data Systems, Acer, and Lucky Goldstar were all quietly displaying a different flavor of Network Computer (NC).
Umax was demonstrating its NC-300 computer, based on the NC platform as defined by the likes of Oracle, Sun, and IBM. The system, destined for the corporate market, has a 166- or 200-MHz Pentium processor and 16MB of memory and runs the "NC OS," the operating system developed by Oracle affiliate Network Computer, Incorporated.
These NCs download programs from a central server. At the desktop, a piece of software called the Java Virtual Machine is used to help run Java-based applications using a powerful processor located in the client machine.
By contrast, Windows-based terminals using Microsoft's Windows Based Terminal Server 4.0 software (formerly referred to as Hydra) store data and applications at a Windows NT-based server, which also processes information. Microsoft released a beta version of the software earlier this week with a relatively limited amount of fanfare, all things considered. (See related story)
Windows terminals (as defined by Microsoft and the use of its Hydra server) aren't going to be available until mid-1998 at earliest, while the much-touted and often-delayed JavaStation from Sun won't appear until the first quarter of next year. It was expected as early as February 1997, and more recently promised for November.
Meanwhile, in Oracle's NC camp, an Internet set-top box device from Acer is expected to debut in mid-98, while a set-top box is already shipping from RCA Electronics.
Umax expects to ship its NC by next month, with U.S. availability expected at that time as well. But while NCs are finally starting to appear in the marketplace and are beginning to spark some customer interest, there are still lingering questions about why people would use NCs over a traditional PC.
The ability to manage scads of client computers from a central location--the main selling point of both NCs and Windows terminals--is rapidly becoming a feature of PCs. The ability to run many desktops off a single server is also a question companies are starting to ask as they face the possibility of upgrading servers to handle the increased processing requirements.
Only once NCs have been in the market for an extended period of time will there be enough evidence to settle the NC vs. PC debate.
Meanwhile, Acer and Lucky Goldstar (which owns Zenith) were showing off consumer versions of the NC as well. Both companies were using NCI's TV Navigator operating system, a variant of its NC operating system software, in Internet set-top boxes. In the consumer market, a different set of questions faces NC vendors as they attempt to persuade people to browse the Internet on their TVs, a prospect which a limited number of people have found to be appealing.