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NetPC finally gets off the ground

Microsoft and Intel release a reference specification for their NetPC initiative, and say systems will be announced within 90 days.

Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) today finally added some specifics to their NetPC thin-client initiative.

The two companies have released a reference specification for industry review, and say they expect PC manufacturers to announce new NetPC-compliant systems within 90 days. PC vendors working on systems include Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

Microsoft will support the specification with its Zero Administration Kit for the Windows NT Workstation 4.0 operating system.

NetPCs are "sealed-case" system that will have no floppy disk drive or expansion slots. The companies claim the systems will reduce ownership cost for companies that currently use networked PCs by allowing IS staff to maintain and update desktops from the center of the corporate network.

Proponents of network computers, or NCs, lead by Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, say their NC devices will provide the same kind of cost and time savings as systems compliant with the NetPC initiative.

Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell Computer helped develop the reference specifications and more than 100 manufacturers worldwide have expressed support for the platform.

The cheapest of the devices will be built around Intel's Pentium processor and cost less than $1,000, which will put them in the ball park of the NC machines, championed by Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and IBM.

While the low-end machines will be designed for simple tasks performed by office workers, such as order-entry clerks, Microsoft and Intel said more powerful NetPCs based on Pentium Pro chips will offer the power and flexibility for doing more complex computing.

NetPCs will feature the following capabilities :

  • Hardware can be recognized and managed by software which allows information system personnel to troubleshoot and repair PCs from remote locations.

  • NetPCs can be automatically set up and updated over the network in off-hours.

  • There are no ISA slots, making it more likely that hardware devices can be automatically recognized and managed by software. The ISA slots in a PC are based on an age-old PC standard first developed by IBM back in the early 1980s. ISA add-in cards are the cause of many hardware configuration conflicts.

  • A sealed case prevents users from making changes to the hardware, a problem that has plagued many information system personnel at companies.

    Though these specifications for a NetPC may be appealing to some computer management personnel since they offer more centralized control, they don't apply to the majority of corporate users, Intel admits.

    A NetPC is applicable to only about 15 percent of the PC market where PCs are "tightly managed in homogenous user groups," said Jesse Treger, NetPC platform marketing manager at Intel.

    Microsoft, for its part, announced that its Zero Administration Kit for Windows will be available to customers within 90 days. The kit is designed for its Windows NT Workstation operating system version 4.0, the company said.

    The kit is a set of tools to reduce the cost of ownership "by limiting a key component of hidden PC costs--end user operations," Microsoft said. The Zero Administration Kit for Windows NT Workstation 4.0 provides centralized configuration of the desktop, prohibits users from installing applications, and allows applications and data to be accessed from the server.

    Based on the Zero Administration Kit's central configuration model, computer management personnel can specify what applications users may run, the layout of the user's desktop, and where user data can reside. This is all managed centrally and requires no visit to the actual personal computer, Microsoft said.

    PCs can be preconfigured to load applications off the server, using the local hard drive as a cache for better performance.

    IT managers with existing Windows NT Workstation 4.0-based machines will need to reconfigure to install the kit.

    Microsoft also promises to provide a "migration path to advanced management capabilities in future versions of Windows."

    In line with NetPC and Zero Administration standards, Intel also announced the Wired for Management (WFM) specification, which is targeted at typical, fully-configured desktop and notebook PCs, Intel said.

    The WFM specification will help PC vendors produce standard desktop PCs that can be "more effectively managed over networks," according to Intel.

    Intel has begun to canvass PC vendors on the WFM "Baseline" specification, which initially covers business desktop PCs and is scheduled to be expanded at midyear to include mobile PCs and servers. Intel plans to publish the first edition of the specification next month after review and comment by hardware and software vendors.