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12 firms commit to NetPC initiative

Computer makers unveil their respective plans for NetPCs at the anticipated yet quite sedate NetPC rollout at PC Expo.

NEW YORK--A dozen computer makers unveiled their respective plans for NetPCs today at the anticipated yet quite sedate NetPC rollout hosted by Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT) at PC Expo.

The event was designed to boost the profile of low-administration devices.

One of the most conspicuous distinctions of the Net PCs on parade today is the how they look. Almost all the vendors are showing small computers almost half the size of the typical desktop PC. Some even small enough to approach the size of a laptop computer.

This is more than just a cosmetic change, according to Mitsubishi, which has enthusiastically embraced the Net PC. "With the Net PC we're positively saying that the case is sealed and you can't have a floppy," said Peter Pearson, product marketing director at Apricot, the PC division of Mitsubishi.

Apricot believes the Net PC is strictly off limits to end users for tampering and configuration, leaving this to information system staff in charge of the powerful server computers which control the Net PCs over the network.

As expected, Compaq (CPQ), Hewlett-Packard (HWP), IBM (IBM), and Dell (DELL) revealed that they would be rolling out low-administration NetPCs later in the year.

Joining them onstage were Acer, Gateway 2000 (GTW), Mitac International, Mitsubishi Electric, NEC, Pionex Technologies, Unisys (UIS), and Zenith Data Systems.

Representatives from Pennzoil and Prudential were also on hand to discuss their own beta deployments of NetPCs.

"Cost is a key consideration in everything we do. We wanted to be sure we weren't sacrificing power or functionality," said Britt Mayo, director of information technology at Pennzoil. "With NetPCs, we have seen full functionality at lower costs."

NetPCs are "sealed-case" systems that typically will have no floppy disk drive or expansion slots. The systems are supposed to reduce ownership cost for companies that currently use networked PCs because they will purportedly allow IS staff to maintain and update desktops from the corporate network, instead of visiting each PC. Lacking a floppy drive, NetPCs will also prevent users from mucking up enterprise systems by loading their own software programs.

Although often considered low-end machines, a substantial number of NetPCs actually contain relatively high-end microprocessors. Dell, for instance, is demonstrating two NetPCs at the show: a model with a 233-MHz MMX Pentium and an even higher end model with a 266-MHz Pentium II.

But many, if not most, of the systems demonstrated today use 166-MHz Pentium processors and should ultimately be targeted as "thin clients" or inexpensive, low-end, network-ready PCs.

Mitsubishi also made it clear that focus on the NetPC hardware only took in half of the equation. The Japanese manufacturer said that one purpose of its NetPC, the Apricot LS100, is to leverage sales of its Apricot FT4200 enterprise server.

Most manufacturers said that they would test-market their products during the remainder of 1997 and wait until the first quarter of 1998 to start shipping NetPCs in earnest.