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Ellison launches NC assault

Oracle chief Larry Ellison initiates his company's attempt to make network computers a ubiquitous technology.

SAN FRANCISCO--Oracle (ORCL) chairman and chief executive Larry Ellison last night demonstrated the company's newest Intel-based network computer that will ship in the first quarter, launching what he hopes will be a new era of "cooperation and competition" for both the corporate and consumer marketplaces.

"We think these devices are going to spread very rapidly," Ellison said as he closed the first day of the Oracle OpenWorld annual users' conference here. The "new generation of machine" will bring prices into a range comparable with televisions and VCRs and make them easy enough to appeal to "the disenfranchised" throughout the United States and the world, he said.

"Where personal computers are needed most people can't afford them and don't understand how to use them," said Ellison, who hopes to sell NC systems to some of the seven in ten Americans and nine in ten people in the rest of the world who do not have PCs in their homes.

In an hour-long presentation with visual aids created with Oracle's new HatTrick Java-based applets, Ellison referred to the NC as "a simple, low-cost appliance." To prove the point, he demonstrated prototypes of a network computer-enabled television set, telephone, and smart card plug-in that he hopes will soon be commonly found in homes, offices, hotels, and other public places.

The machines will also have HTML-based email, allowing users to embed images and video segments into their messages. The email will also be used to push custom news and other information to users.

While the company will face competition from Sun's JavaStation, IBM's PowerPC-based NC, and the Microsoft-Intel NetPC initiative, Ellison said he is "thrilled" by the pending competition. He took every opportunity to continue the onslaught against Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and his Windows empire, an attack which began earlier in the day by Oracle president Ray Lane and Sun chairman and CEO Scott McNealy. Ellison even took a few shots at its new NC business partner Intel, which dominates the chip market.

While they will handle email, videoconferencing, Internet access, database management, word processing, graphics, and spreadsheet programs, the NC machines will not replace PCs, Ellison said. Instead, the stripped-down NCs will run about a dozen programs tailored for casual users. The software is written in HTML and will run on both NC and PC machines, he added.

The NC machines built with Intel's 133-MHz Pentium chip will begin testing later this year and hit the streets in the first quarter of 1997. The comparably priced, albeit six-times slower NC based on a microprocessor made by Advanced RISC Machines will hit the market later this year, Ellison said.

Oracle has signed up a half-dozen hardware makers--including Acorn Computer Group, Akai Digital, and Idea--to deliver the machines at $200 to $800 apiece for models designed for companies and classrooms. Simpler consumer models will likely rent for about $10 to $30 a month from telephone companies and cable television services, Ellison said.

End users appear to have mixed reviews for the new NCs. James Hoerner, senior systems analyst for Grand Rapids, Michigan-based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, said his company will eventually adopt the network computer approach to garnish the cost savings and simplify use for the company's more than 20,000 desktop users. Yet Hoerner, who has been implementing new computer technology at Steelcase for the better part of the last two decades, said the company will first spend 1997 finishing installation of companywide client-server applications that it began using in the early 1990s.

"It will take corporate America a few years to implement the network computers," he predicted. "But it will be worth it because it keeps complications in the hands of the IS department."

Leslie Holbrook, a developer for New York-based pharmaceuticals company Pfizer, said the same issue of control may be one obstacle to setting up the server-centric network computers at her company. The client-server approach has allowed members of different departments to take a more immediate role in specifying and administering their departmental systems.

"It's an issue of control," she said. Implementing a NC network "could be easily construed as an attempt by the IS department to return to a more monolithic computing environment.

"I want to believe it's going to work. But, I have some real credibility issues," Holbrook added. She said she doubted that the NC's thin client and limited horsepower would work at her company, where resource-intensive, object-oriented applications are the norm.

"I don't think either [the network computer or the client-server] approach is the right one. I would like to see something in the middle," Holbrook said.