Oracle NCs will link to Windows

Oracle subsidiary NCI will bundle a new network computer software suite that enables access to Microsoft Office files--indicating the necessity of accessing Windows software even on a platform that professes to spurn Windows.

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Network Computer Incorporated, an Oracle subsidiary that makes server software for network computers, announced it will bundle Star Division's StarOffice suite with its server software--a move that shows NCs need access to Windows, the corporate standard.

StarOffice 4.0 is a fully-integrated software suite for business and personal productivity, according to NCI. The suite provides Web-enabled word processing, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, email, news, charting and graphics applications.

"Users can access existing Microsoft Office files and data to create spreadsheets, presentations and documents and save all data in Microsoft formats or as HTML files to post on the Web or Newsgroup servers," according to the release.

The joint licensing agreement indicates that NC users require access to Microsoft programs. "I think they've pretty much understood that they had to be compatible with a standard corporate desktop," said Rob Enderle, an analyst for Giga Information Group.

"It's a hurdle they've simply got to cross [for the NC] to be successful," he said.

Other NC companies have offered compatibility with Microsoft programs by bundling Citrix software, Enderle noted. Citrix provides compatibility with other Microsoft programs besides the Office applications.

But some users believe that NCI's move instead allows them to escape Microsoft's grip. "Yes, it can import and export MS Office files. But this indicates a freedom from the software out of Redmond, not a surrender to it," said one user.

Nevertheless access to Windows applications remains an unavoidable fact of life. Oracle has often denigrated the software giant in promoting the NC as a low-cost alternative to running Microsoft's leading productivity suite on standard PCs.

NCs are supposed to do away with hard disk drives and consign data files, applications, and operating systems to server computers that store and upload data and programs to NC clients as needed. The idea is that the stripped-down machines are inexpensive to build and maintain, providing access to internal corporate networks and also the Internet.

The notion of an NC has also gained popularity because it implicitly challenges the market dominance of the PC industry's two giants, microprocessor leader Intel and software leader Microsoft.

Enthusiasm for the NC concept has waned, however, in part because anticipated costs savings over PCs have failed to materialize in any significant way. Overall savings in managing NCs--referred to often as "total cost of ownership"--is not compelling enough, according to a number of analysts and observers speaking recently at an International Data Corp. forum. Moreover, the pricing for the NC box itself is not much cheaper than inexpensive personal computers from companies such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

The advent of server-based PC management software, which offer the advantages of streamlined maintenance without limiting user options too severely, has also undermined the NC.

Earlier this year, Oracle began showing off prototype NCs based on Intel processors for the first time, acknowledging that most IS managers are uncomfortable with using non-Intel based machines in their corporate networks.

Closely held Star Division is the second-biggest supplier of business software in Germany, according to market researcher International Data Corporation. Star Division said it shipped 1 million copies of its products in Europe in 1996.

The company's word processing and spreadsheet products have traditionally run on personal computers, but with the rise of the Internet in 1995, the company modified its products to be able to work through networks, Boerries said. Star Division plans to create a holding company in the United States and go public in the first quarter of 1998, he added.

StarOffice will be available with a version of NCI's Network in the Box and NC Administration Server in November. Bundling details and pricing were not available.

Reuters contributed to this report.