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Compaq to debut Net PC, new strategy

Compaq will unveil its Net at PC Expo to great fanfare and, possibly, some customer indifference.

Compaq (CPQ) will unveil its Net PC as a new member of its Deskpro line of computers at PC Expo later this month to great fanfare and, possibly, some customer indifference.

This new genre of PCs, as proposed by Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Intel, and others is a low-cost, no-frills "sealed-case" business computer designed to be remotely controlled by information system personnel over a network.

Compaq will also take the opportunity to spell out how it plans to deliver hardware and software technologies that improve management of computers in a networked environment, the company said.

The Net PC has been represented as the future of computing, although the backers of the project remain vague about how that future will look. The Net PC is generally envisioned as lower-cost, lower-powered PC that can be centrally managed from a server. Although less robust than a PC, the Net PC backers claim that the machine will drive down corporate computing costs by eliminating the need to load software individually at each desktop, since this software will be automatically distributed to all PCs over the network.

The Net PC will use Intel processors as well as Microsoft's Windows 95 and NT. Windows NT, however, is expected to be the primary operating system targeted for use in Net PC environments. Digital Equipment's Alpha processor is also supported in the specification for use with NT.

Compaq, Dell Computer, Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard posted the final specifications for the Net PC in April.

Despite the publication of the standards, however, questions remain on how a Net PC differs on a practical level from a PC, and whether it might be yet another platform for launching high-cost Intel-based computers. In April, for instance, Intel previewed a Net PC containing a high-end 233-MHz Pentium II microprocessor. If released, that kind of Net PC would rival the highest-end desktops available today.

A rival NC alliance led by Oracle is also muddying the waters on how network computing will evolve. As a result, some customers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Customers in the corporate world don't seem that fascinated by the Net PC," said Paul Rajewski, president of MicroAge/The Corporate Center, a large computer reseller in Cerritos, California, who added that few large customers have even asked about the Net PC.

"Low-cost desktops can be deployed as Net PCs," said Bruce Stephen, a group vice president at International Data Corporation, alluding to the fact that Net PC hardware may not be all that different than the current hardware in networked PCs.

"Customers aren't that interested in it right now," agreed John Cruse, purchasing director for Pomeroy Computer Resources, a large corporate reseller in Cincinnati.

Compaq's Net PC will be included in the Deskpro line and will become commercially available in the second half of the year, said a Compaq spokeswoman. Compaq's Net PC, she added, will conform to the specifications set forth by the Net PC alliance earlier this year. As a result, it will not have a floppy drive and will come in a sealed case.

The Net PC will be one of many new products on display from the Houston-based computer giant. Compaq will also parade additions to its Deskpro and consumer product line at the convention, which will take place from June 17 through 19 at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center in New York.