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Oracle gets NC religion

Oracle's Larry Ellison is hoping that history doesn't repeat itself with the company's fledgling Network Computer.

Oracle's Larry Ellison is hoping that history doesn't repeat itself with the company's fledgling Network Computer.

Less than three years after an all-out Oracle campaign to evangelize interactive television--remember interactive television?--Oracle has refocused on the Network Computer (NC), an example of a new kind of low-cost Internet terminal device that Ellison and others believe will offer an alternative to PCs for many users.

"We've recast all of our efforts in interactive television for the Web," Ellison said yesterday at the Oracle Developer Conference in San Francisco. "I believe there will be more NCs sold by the year 2000 than PCs," he added. By Ellison's estimate, that would be more than 100 million NCs in homes, schools, and businesses.

Ellison also demonstrated a protoype of the NC for the first time to an American audience, showing how the NC could send and receive email, do most basic application tasks, surf the Web, and provide real-time video and audio streams--all this for less than $500.

Oracle is not going to sell the NC. Oracle is going to establish a hardware reference design for hardware manufacturers, and they're going to make NCs based on Oracle's directions. No one stood up yesterday with Ellison to say they are going to build them, but at least five major manufacturers will do so by April, Ellison said. And some of them will actually be shipping machines by September, Ellison said.

Ellison did give a hint of who they might be: "Make a list of the top ten computer producers. Assume we have half of them [working with us on the NC]."

Those so-far unnamed manufacturers will ship devices built around either a 100-MHz Intel Pentium microprocessor or an ARM processor, Ellison said. Those same manufacturers will also ship different models of the NC, including desktop, laptop, telephone, set-top, personal digital assistant, and pager models. And they will price them from about $495 to $995, Ellison said. The machines will come with keyboards and mice but no hard drives. Users of the desktop model could hook it up to a computer monitor or a TV, as the pocketbook demands.

As for Oracle, it will license the 300K, Posix-compliant NC operating system and a Java-based suite of basic applications called JavaWorks to those manufacturers. JavaWorks will include a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a scheduler. The apps will be able to read and write Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files and will provide an alternative to Microsoft Office, which Ellison characterized as bloated and irrelevant to most user's needs.

Oracle also plans that the explosion of the NC market will help it sell lots more of its database software including the Universal Server, which shipped yesterday and lets database developers store any kind of information: traditional relational tables, graphics, video, text, audio, whatever.

Ellison is confident about there being lots of NCs everywhere because lots of people will get one without buying anything. Instead, he said, Internet service providers and telephone companies will give them away. Ellison didn't name anyone, but in fact AT&T has already expressed interest.

"The price of [Internet access] service could incorporate a [Network Computer]," said John C. Petrillo, executive vice president of Strategy and New Offer Development at AT&T. "We haven't made any decision on that. But we're looking into that." AT&T is planning to launch a dial-up Net access business in March.

By the way, Oracle is not the only one whose interactive television experience led to Internet products instead of movies on demand. Sun Microsystems' Java programming language began as an interactive television project, code-named Oak.