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Uphill battle seen for Java NCs

Though "thin-client" shipments will double in 1998, a new report says Java-only devices will continue to face ambivalence from corporate buyers.

Though shipments of "thin-client" computers will double in 1998 due in part to increased visibility from a new breed of Windows-based terminals, a new report from Zona Research says Java-only devices will continue to face ambivalence from corporate buyers.

Thin-client computing,

Total thin-client shipments
so named because the desktop unit often relies on a server computer for storage and even processing functions, first gained attention with the much-hyped Java-based network computer. But so far, the largest vendors of thin clients are offering machines that in many cases don't use Java technology. Instead, they offer competing environments, including Microsoft's Windows, the report states.

Zona's survey showed that in 1997 Network Computing Devices led the market with 40.2 percent of thin clients shipped when including sales of IBM's Net Station, which are manufactured by NCD. NCD's thin-client terminals offer access to Windows, Unix, and Macintosh applications that reside on a central server computer.

Wyse was the second largest vendor of thin-client devices with a 24 percent market share, followed by Tektronix, Hewlett-Packard, and Neoware. Overall, 48.4 percent of the thin clients sold in 1997 had the ability to access Windows applications.

In 1998, thin clients "will become a legitimate form of computing as Microsoft introduces products with Microsoft logos and labels on them," said Greg Blatnik, vice president of Zona Research. Zona predicts that as a result, the overall market for thin clients will grow from 258,100 units in 1997 to more than 650,000 units in 1998.

Java-based thin clients, however, face a tougher time, as evidenced by Sun Microsystems' notable no-show, JavaStation. Sun is one of the biggest proponents of Java-based NCs.

"The biggest issue [in the thin-client market] is the whole issue of Java-specific computers. They never really materialized in 1997," added Blatnik. "Most devices that supported Java were from companies other than Sun. Sun never delivered a production level product."

Even when Sun's product finally arrives sometime next month, Blatnik thinks that Java-only products will face a tough time in the marketplace. "The main hot button has been Windows applications access," he noted, but other issues for Sun and similar vendors include application performance and application availability issues. These present a "formidable barrier to the proliferation of any thin client that is tied exclusively to the Java language," according to the report.

Net PCs aren't doing much better but actually made a showing in Zona's report, thanks to the efforts of Compaq Computer, which sold 14,500 of the devices. Net PCs are marketed as low-cost, stripped-down corporate PCs that can be managed remotely by server computers in order to save on maintenance costs. Originally touted as NC killers, few companies other than Compaq have sold the devices in significant numbers.