Sun JavaStation ships, quietly

In stark contrast to the bombast usually associated with major product annoucements, Sun announces its JavaStation in subdued, almost muted tones.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
4 min read
At the JavaOne conference today, Sun Microsystems announced the commercial availability of its JavaStation network computer (NC) in subdued, almost muted tones.

The official announcement of the oft-delayed "thin client" computing device was buried inside a press release about new JavaStation customers.

Sun said that AlliedSignal has adopted Java computing technology including the JavaStation at a Phoenix-based manufacturing plant, and that PHP Healthcare has installed 40 JavaStation NCs with plans for 460 additional units at its Reston, Virginia, headquarters and its New Jersey subsidiary, Pinnacle Health Enterprise.

In a subtitle to the main AlliedSignal and PHP announcement, Sun revealed "the commercial release of its JavaStation network computer, Sun's 100% Pure Java powered thin client for fixed-function applications."

Pricing for a JavaStation with 32MB of memory is $699, including a keyboard and mouse. Monitors and software are sold separately.

The announcement comes after a number of product delays and amid competition from Windows-based Terminals and low-priced PCs. A lack of compelling applications has also conspired to make the introduction low-key.

Sun's JavaStation
Sun's JavaStation faces market indifference
Sun JavaStations are mostly finding only tepid acceptance among customers, according to computer companies, analysts, and even some Sun integrators.

For the most part, customers are using JavaStations for replacement of "green screen" terminal computers, which were previously tethered to mainframes, or as kiosks--two lucrative but small markets in comparison with Sun's original vision.

Precious little momentum exists in the broader market as a combination of low-cost PCs from vendors such as Compaq and terminal computers--the cheapest of the cheap boxes--from the likes of Network Computing Devices begins to freeze Sun out of potential market share.

Perhaps more important, both Microsoft and Intel have started promoting terminals at the lowest end of the market and low-cost PC solutions in the upper part of the low-end computing segment, leaving little breathing room for JavaStations.

Ironically, network computers seem to be finding their strongest acceptance at customers where Sun's Java strategy does not figure as a strong component of the system architecture. For instance, IBM's sale of 45,000 Network Stations to Allstate Insurance, the biggest deployment of NCs to date, comprises machines that will run applications based around Big Blue's Unix platform and the Windows NT operating system, not Java applications, a source close to IBM said.

"The reality is that people are not deploying Java applications today, so we haven't seen the volume" for Java-based NCs, said Lorraine Hariton, senior vice president of marketing and business development for NCD, which manufactures network computers for IBM as well as terminals under its own name.

Meanwhile, Microsoft sees the competition from low-cost PCs as impacting its push into terminal computers. John Frederiksen, product marketing manager from the software giant, says that low-cost PCs will be competing directly with terminal computers, potentially making the market even smaller than once forecast.

Another irony is that Microsoft is pursuing an application licensing policy that could discourage terminal adoption. Although terminal users generally use business software on a much more sporadic basis than regular desktop users, Microsoft will charge terminal users the same rate for licensing the application and will not allow concurrent licensing. In the end, this means that hardware and software savings won't amount to much on terminals.

Windows Terminal is a technology for low-end computing devices that are used for very basic tasks, such as simple data entry. The end-user or "client" device has relatively little processing capabilities and instead relies on a powerful server to do the data crunching. NCs, as defined by Oracle and Sun, have more processing power but still rely heavily on servers.

Sun itself has yet to roll out a major deployment of NCs. The company has installed only 3,000 systems internally, an effort that has been resisted in some departments, according to some Sun employees. The largest deployment outside of Sun is inside the Transportation Department of New South Wales, Australia, which has deployed 900 units. American Airlines has deployed approximately 30 JavaStations, a source close to Sun said.

Other Java-centric NC vendors are meeting similar results. Network Computer Incorporated, a subsidiary of Oracle, has so far won only four licensees--and all are small, third-tier vendors such as Funai. NCI is talking to some "well-known names in the computer business," sources at the company said, but no deals have been signed.

"I see no momentum for NCs or JavaStations," asserted Bob Nilsson, vice president of marketing at Axil, a server company supporting the Windows Terminal effort. Axil recently broke off licensing Solaris from Sun.

"NCs as a product are having a hard time because Java is still not robust enough to warrant commercial deployment," said Jeff McNaught, general manager at Wyse, a terminal vendor that dumped plans for an NC last year.

But for JavaStation advocates, the concept remains valid if slow to arrive.

"We come across a lot of opportunities to use them," said Mike Durbin, president of Open Business Systems, an Illinois-based Sun integrator. "People forget that it took Windows 3.1 five or six years to gain acceptance, and here it's been 18 months."

Moreover, the JavaStation's loss may not translate into gains for the Windows-based "dumb" terminal computers, however. Despite the forthcoming release of networking software from Microsoft and Citrix that will make these Windows devices run more efficiently, terminal computers will still find a formidable competitor in the low-cost PC. Microsoft sales policies may also prove a hindrance.

In today's announcement Sun said that the JavaStation "pulls all its applications, data, and even the operating system from the network and executes them locally, simplifying administration and providing a truly scalable and powerful network computing environment."

Sun also launched new NC software for managing JavaStations via the Sun Solaris operating system. The Netra j software price starts at $1,295, and it is available now.