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New Sun NCs, software on way

Sun will release new JavaStation network computer products, though the potential market for these devices remains in flux.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) will release two new JavaStations and a new complement of software this fall, though the potential market for these machines remains in flux.

JavaStations are Sun's contribution to the network computer initiative. Touted as an alternative to the PC, the NC is envisioned as a stripped-down computing device that mainly functions as a conduit to a larger network. Network computers are expected to cost less than PCs, require less administration, and, with smart cards, allow users to log on to a network virtually anywhere in the world, though some critics contend that these advantages are currently more valid in theory than in fact.

The new JavaStations come primarily as a result of software improvements, said Steve Tirado, director of product marketing for Java Systems at Sun. The company will release a new Java OS based around the Java Development Kit 1.1, as well as new server-end software that will improve performance. The high end JavaStation will come in a slim tower design and start at $742. Unlike previous Javastations, the slim tower machine will contain flash memory--a low-capacity, high-speed storage technology--and support 100-base-T networking, he said.

In addition, Sun will sell a new version of the current JavaStation prototype, nicknamed the "brick" because of its form factor, with the new Java OS. Tirado would not comment on the price of this machine, but sources said it would cost around $599. Both machines will use a MicroSparc II processor running at 100 MHz and contain up to 64MB of memory.

Both will also be commercially available to all who want them. Currently, because of the state of the software, customers have to state a business case scenario to buy JavaStations.

Sun is finding that test customers are not adopting the machines for general purpose use. Instead, most have adopted them for dedicated application use, Tirado said.

To this end, Tirado said that Sun will sell JavaStations designed for "alternative main application" use. That is, Sun will sell the machines loaded only with the Java OS, and not browsers or Java application suites.

"It may wind up being a fairly significant market," he said. Many of Sun's key test customers, including Scottish Telecom and British Telecom, are using JavaStations for dedicated applications, he said.

In the future, Sun will start to charge for the software, admitted Tirado. "Today, it's a developer release and it's all free," he said, a situation that changes when the commercially acceptable versions come out. Unless customers want the "alternative main application version" they will have to buy the Java OS, Sun's HotJava Browser, and the JavaViews application suite. Fees will be determined by the number of servers on a network.

Customers additionally will have to pay for a new version of the Java Software Environment, which rides on the server.

The revamped JavaStations will reboot faster as well as load applications quicker, sources said. The slowness of JavaStations has been a recurring complaint. One integrator who handled a JavaStation this past June said the machine "took about ten minutes" to load an email program. The new machines will support the Java Development Kit 1.1.

Despite the improvements and an increasing number of customer design wins, many remain skeptical about he viability of NCs as a standard business platform.

"The problem is infrastructure," said Rob Enderle, senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group. "There are fairly high switching costs. You need to upgrade your servers, upgrade your network. You have to get all new desktop hardware, and then there's all the training...It's not dissimilar to what these folks [Fortune 500 companies] had to do when they went from mainframes to desktop PCs."

Originally, JavaStations were supposed to be ready this past summer, following internal use of the machines at Sun.