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JavaStation nostalgia

The JavaStation constitutes that rare kind of product that comes to market after it has already established retro credentials.

The JavaStation has arrived. Make mine avocado green.

Avocado green was the chosen color of all of the odd and useless appliances my family seemed to collect in the '70s: the ice cream maker, the 18-speed blender, the swamp cooler--even the decorator nose tissue.

The JavaStation, and seemingly most Network Computers (NCs), constitute that rare kind of product that comes to market after it has already established retro credentials. People in the high-tech world know all about NCs from memory, but few have ever seen them even though they are already on their way out. In a way, it's sort of like the way fashion designers keep trying to make the fez a fashion statement.

Lest anyone forget, Sun had huge plans for the $699 box in 1996 when the concept was unveiled (including, of course, selling it for $1,399). The company ran its first network television ads after the JavaStation concept was aired in 1996. Network-based computing was going to free the world from paying royalties to Microsoft. Soon, it would be everywhere.

Sun featured the box on five episodes of Friends as a way to make it a cultural moniker. "The set decorators wanted something that said 'cutting edge,'" enthused Harold Randall, co-owner of Silent Stars, a product placement agency, in a Sun press release. Larry Ellison, chairman of Oracle and the other NC proponent, even did his part by giving a few free NCs to a third-grade class in East Palo Alto and then sticking around to give personal grooming tips. Somehow, you always got the feeling Scott McNealy was hoping for his own Justice Department investigation.

But in the end, it didn't matter. Few took the bait. On the first day for general commercial release of JavaStations, Allied Signal took 40. Outside Sun, the biggest customer is the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles in New South Wales, Australia.

Sun now is touting the JavaStation as the perfect engine for kiosks and other public interactivity computers. I can't wait to read the releases. "Winchester Mystery House Selects Sun Computers for New Wax Figurine Machines: Wax Puppets Clearer, Sharper, Brighter, and More Distinct"; "400 Video Poker Machines Linked Together on One Server. Impossible? Not So, Says the Yakima Nation Card Room and Casino"; "1,024 Breakfast Combinations Achieved Through New OrderJava Stations at Denny's: Using Only Eggs, Pancakes, and Two Kinds of Meat, Sun Engineers?"

Current history can explain some of this. Although the early hype about NCs included how inexpensive they would be compared to PCs, the opposite has come to pass as NC prices have gone up while PC costs have dropped considerably. Moreover, PC software is widely available and relatively inexpensive, especially compared to that of NCs. Further, PCs have become more manageable.

The truth lies deeper, though. The JavaStation failed because it did not answer the "oomph" question in product marketing. It did not strike that atavistic and elusive chord in the human soul that would have made it a must-have kind of thing.

Striking that chord is never easy. The product marketing world is littered with the carcasses of almost-beens. Schwinn hit the gold mine with the Sting Ray, but when it made a three-speed version and took out the sparkles on the banana seat, fourth-graders turned their backs. Last week, I was in Orlando, Florida--and though Sea World seems to do bang-up business, the Gator Jumparoo Zoo has to offer tourists the opportunity to throw fresh meat at the crocodiles to gather customers.

Where did Sun go wrong? It came out with a desktop device that told employees that, in their employer's eyes, they possessed the skills to run a machine that could also be used as a ticket-issuing stand in a Greyhound station.

A class structure exists when it comes to office products. PC makers completely understand this. One of the driving forces behind computer upgrades is the fact that someone else down the hall has something more powerful. PCs also give employees the illusion of privacy, which means employees feel free to goof off all day trolling different Web sites or playing games.

The JavaStation, by contrast, was advertised as a way to give IT managers a 24-hour view into employees' terminals. The JavaStation also would save employers money. These sort of lofty goals usually don't go over well with people who already get money removed from their paycheck to pay for dental insurance. Having a JavaStation, in essence, would become the equivalent of having a photo cube on your desk. The machine screams insignificance. Engineers at Sun told me they've rebelled against the JavaStation installations since the beginning.

The JavaStation's time has passed. It is only with collectors that the company will turn a profit.

Senior reporter Michael Kanellos writes for NEWS.COM on his avocado green PC.