Vendors do NetPC vision thing at Comdex

IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Gateway 2000 all are spending this week explaining their ideas of what the NetPC is all about.

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
IBM (IBM), Hewlett-Packard (HWP), and Gateway 2000 (GATE) all spent this week at Comdex offering up their visions of what the NetPC is all about.

The NetPC platform was announced late last month by Intel and Microsoft and was immediately endorsed by major Intel-processor-based PC vendors such as Hewlett-Packard and Gateway 2000.

The NetPC is a response to the accusation of network computer vendors like Oracle and Sun Microsystems--and many customers--that PCs cost too much to own and operate. The hardware, software, service, and support costs for one PC can add up to as much as $40,000 over a five-year period for today's PCs, according to estimates (see related special feature, NC brings PC cost of ownership to fore).

The NetPC initiative will bring these costs way down, promise Microsoft and Intel, by automating and centralizing PC management and thereby lowering the cost of installing, maintaining, and trouble-shooting PC software and hardware.

While most vendors have been talking about NetPCs this week, IBM was the only one to actually show a real example on the floor, dubbing it simply "the Network PC." It comes in a relatively slimmed-down form factor, runs Windows 95, packs a Pentium processor and, surprisingly, a 1GB hard drive.

And, unlike most PCs on a network today, the IBM Network PC architecture is designed to let IS managers manage a PC remotely. Software revision updates, new installation, setup of the PC, flash BIOS updates, and shutdown of the computer are managed remotely on the back end. The NetPC is also compliant with the Desktop Management Interface.

"This is a little like the return of Big Brother," said Jim Rhoades, a senior IBM engineer, alluding to the heyday of mainframes when management of computers was controlled exclusively by IS people. "If I see users installing software that I don't want on their systems, I can shut down their floppy drives," he said, referring to these new-found capabilities in the IBM Network PC (see related special feature, Here to there and back).

Though HP didn't have a prototype on the floor, its executives didn't shirk from describing its idea of a NetPC.

"This is a very powerful evolution of the PC. Manageability is the big change," said Jacques Clay, general manager at HP's Personal Information Products Group. "This is essentially a piece of hardware for IS [managers]," he added.

HP expects to bring out a family of NetPCs in the summer of 1997, some with and some without hard disk drives. These will use a Pentium processor, and some models will start below $1,000.

"No floppy disk drives, no CD-ROM, no hard disk drive...fine. We'll do away with this. Customer needs drive the design," Clay said.

Like the IBM PCs, the HP NetPCs will be managed from the back end, be DMI compliant, and provide a variety of low-level and higher-level software for managing PCs and devices on the network, he added.

HP will not necessarily commit to Microsoft's proposed zero-administration initiative, however. Microsoft's zero-administration initiative, announced in tandem with the NetPC platform at the end of October, calls for cost-reduction technologies such as having the operating system update itself when the computer is booted by going out and getting the latest necessary code and drivers from a server.

HP currently has software of its own that can do some of the tasks Microsoft is proposing and may continue down this path if Microsoft's technology is too proprietary and tied too closely to its products, Clay said.

Clay was also adamant about not committing HP to the exclusive use of Intel processors. "It could be Intel or it could be someone else," alluding to other Intel-compatible processor vendors such as Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix.

Clay claims that Intel is too focused on producing faster and faster processors, a design imperative that isn't the priority for the NetPC platform because the feature set is so simplified.

Gateway, on the other hand, says it is committed to still delivering plenty of features to users in its version of a NetPC.

"Our customers are typically very PC-savvy," said Ted Waitte, company president and CEO. Gateway's NetPC will likely have a network interface card, audio, a hard disk drive, 16MB of RAM, and a monitor for a price of between $1,000 and $1,200, Waitte said.

"We'll have a range of products. We'll address cost of ownership and still provide the industry standard hardware at lower price points," he added.

On the software side, he said that Gateway will subscribe to the Microsoft zero-administration initiative or "any technology that addresses the cost of ownership."