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"Dumb" terminals for Windows

Redmond suggests Windows-based computers similar to NCs and mainframe terminals.

Microsoft (MSFT) is embarking on yet another initiative to lower the cost of owning and operating computers, this time proposing Windows-based computers similar to low-cost network computers and the "dumb" computer terminals of yore.

Microsoft is working on a reference specification due in the next two months that will allow inexpensive, no-frills Windows-based computers to act much like a network computer (NC), according to Phil Holden, product manager for the Windows OS group.

The network computer departs from the traditional concept of a personal computer, which is "intelligent" since it does most of the data processing on its own. Instead, the network computer relies on a powerful, centrally located server computer for its intelligence and processing power. It is connected to the server via a company's internal computer network.

The upside of having applications and data reside in one, central location is that they can be updated and maintained easily, and users can be given access to information as decided by the system administrator.

"That type of NC today is already a very effective way to reduce total cost of ownership," said Tony Iams, a research analyst with consulting firm D.H. Brown Associates.

But the downside is that there is increased data traffic on the network since PCs must get more data from the server computer, requiring both more servers and better, fatter "pipes" between the server and the network computer, or "thin client," as it is also referred to.

Microsoft will use technology developed by Citrix Systems in its products referred to generically as a "Windows terminal." Citrix is already supplying this technology to a number of manufacturers which are already offering thin clients and network computers.

The main difference between existing network computer products, such as IBM's Network Station, and those that Microsoft is proposing is that Windows terminals will access applications solely through a Windows NT server using technology code-named Hydra. IBM's Network Station, for example, does not run on Windows NT machines but on computers running Unix or another operating system.

One of the major marketing and practical issues is how Microsoft's new initiative is different than the Net PC, a variation on the personal computer theme that is also supposed to reduce ownership cost and rely more on severs than current PCs.

The Net PC is appearing more and more to be simply a low-end personal computer with enhanced networking awareness and capability, while the Windows terminal is very much unlike a PC and more of a network-centric "dumb" computer.

"I got the feeling the Net PC was a place-holder for something that was going to appear later, namely the Windows-based terminals...They [the Windows terminal and the Net PC] are both reactions to the network computer," said Lou Greer, vice president of corporate communications for NCD.

"The irony here is that everyone is focusing on Microsoft's co-opting of Java, but the reality is that they appear to be co-opting the definition of an NC as well," said Tony Iams. "The Net PC is more of an architectural statement than anything else."

Indeed, Net PCs may have a difficult time finding a slot in computer vendors' lineups because there doesn't seem to be strong demand for the devices. "Critical aspects of the Net PC specification will morph into all PCs over time. It's an agent of change," Holden said.