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NetPC: Panacea for computing?

Question: What's the difference between a NetPC and a stripped-down business PC? Answer: Go figure.

Question: What's the difference between a NetPC and a stripped-down business PC? Answer: Go figure.

Despite much ado about the joint Microsoft and Intel brainchild, consumers are not likely to get much more out of the computers, once they start shipping later this year, than what is available today.

Large PC vendors such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM already offer stripped-down, cheap business PCs which feature, in hardware terms, much of what is promised in a NetPC. It's really mostly a question of whether your PC has been configured with proper software, NetPC backers admit. This being the case, the consumer may well ask: What gives? If any existing PC can be transformed into a NetPC, why all the fuss about NetPC?

The answer may lie in Marketing 101. The NetPC smacks of a hastily conceived Wintel response to the network computers (NCs) hyped by Oracle and Sun Microsystems. Just as importantly, it seems to be a good way to sell more regular-old PCs, which may be why the idea has attracted more than just the Wintel consortium.

The NetPC is being promoted as a computing environment that will make heavy use of servers for PC management, automatic software updates, and, in some cases, running applications. This, the theory goes, will save oodles of money for companies investing thousands of dollars each year to maintain PCs. Currently, computers are managed mostly by information systems personnel who must physically visit every PC to perform software upgrades and general troubleshooting. This can be costly for a company with hundreds or thousands of desktop machines.

Backers say NetPCs would eliminate this labor-intensive management since upgrades and management can be done off servers, which would broadcast the necessary data over the network.

But the upshot is that any current PC on the market can become a NetPC when it is placed in an environment where client-side management is handled from servers. From strictly a hardware perspective, any stripped-down PC able to operate in this server-managed environment are candidates for NetPC status.

So what exactly makes up a NetPC?

At the low end, a NetPC will have a Pentium processor, but so do today's low-end PCs. A NetPC will have a minimum of 16MB of memory, but so do today's PCs. A NetPC will not have large hard drive capacity, but neither do today's low-end PCs. A NetPC will have built-in networking capability but, again, so can today's PCs.

Microsoft is the first to admit this. "It can be an existing long as they're using NT 4.0," said Phil Holden, a Windows product manager at Microsoft, referring to the company's just-released "zero administration" software for upgrading PCs to a NetPC environment.

Of course, users will have to have plenty of memory if they're limited to using Windows NT, which will drive up the cost of these bare-bones boxes, be they PCs or NetPCs. Windows 95 support for a NetPC environment is only "something we're looking at," Holden added, though he expects it to be supported in future operating systems, namely Windows 97 and NT 5.0.

Compaq has also been quick to admit that current PCs fit the bill. In a previous interview with CNET, Kevin Bohren, vice president of Compaq's desktop PC division, said that the company is already delivering hardware that can be used as a NetPC--that is, stripped-down computers with optional networking capability. "We don't necessarily see this as a new class of computing. We believe it's going to evolve slowly," he said.

"Low-cost desktops can be deployed as NetPCs," said Bruce Stephen, a group vice president at International Data Corporation. A perfect example is one of the most popular business PC lines in the United States, the Compaq Deskpro 2000. This is a low-end 100-MHz Pentium PC being sold today for between $999 and about $1,100 by some major resellers such as CDW.

Also, while HP has announced that it will offer NetPCs under the "Net Vectra PC" moniker in the second half of this year (with an expected entry-level selling point of about $1,000), HP is already offering Vectra PCs at prices below $950 that could be used in a NetPC environment.

IBM is also offering dirt-cheap business PCs that could also work as NetPCs. CDW is selling a stripped-down IBM PC 340 with a 100-MHz Pentium processor for as little as $699, while a system with a few more features and extra memory is selling for $966.

So how does one turn these current PCs into NetPCs? Microsoft's answer is to make drives inaccessible and to rearrange the user desktop to eliminate the "futz factor," as Holden puts it. The "futz factor" is described as users' proclivity to tinker with their PCs or operating system software which, in some cases, reconfigures the computer in a way that creates management headaches for information systems staffers.

"You can lock down a floppy or a CD-ROM...You can do this on current PCs [with Microsoft's administration kit]," Holden said. He also gave some specific examples of what might happen to the user's Windows desktop interface. The user might "not see the typical [Windows] desktop. They might just get Explorer and no word processing" if they are a task-based worker doing order entry, for example. In other cases, users may see applications on their desktops and nothing else, he added.

In both cases, users could be prevented from seeing the Control Panel, Task Manager, and the host of small applications that users typically can access with Windows to prevent them from tinkering with their computer.

Whatever form a NetPC environment takes, vendors such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard will roll out products later this year that are officially labeled as NetPCs.

But the bottom line is this: Don't expect to see a world of difference between the first inexpensive NetPCs and what can be bought today.