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Battle lines drawn for NCs

Sun and Microsoft will go head-to-head next week in proselytizing their visions of lowering the cost of computer ownership and the future of corporate computing.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and Microsoft (MSFT) will go head-to-head next week in proselytizing their visions of lowering the cost of computer ownership and the future of corporate computing.

Sun is expected to introduce technologies next week focusing on an easy-to-manage, server-centric platform that uses new low-cost "thin-client" computers, the first of which will be called JavaStation. The device is expected to have a Sparc processor and a Java browser and be priced around or below $1,000.

Sun's JavaStation will come with a graphical user interface and suite of applications called HotJava Views, according to sources. HotJava Views will run on any network computer that is powered by JavaOS and will initially include a Web browser, email client, calendaring tool, and name directory, sources said.

HotJava Views is in early testing now, with a wider private beta test beginning in December, sources said. The final version of the software is expected to ship in the first quarter of 1997. Meanwhile, Microsoft is expected to articulate its own vision of lowering the cost of corporate computing based on a proposed low-cost client that's easier to manage than today's PCs.

The vision will be predicated on a reference platform for new computers and changes to the Windows operating system. It is expected to receive support, while qualified in some cases, from companies like Compaq and Intel. Intel has already begun to articulate its ideas on future low-cost clients which it refers to as "sealed-case" PCs. Dell Computer has also said it is studying sealed-case designs as low-cost corporate clients.

Therefore, it remains to be seen if Intel and PC vendors like Dell can reconcile their idea of a sealed-case client with Microsoft's platform.

In terms of hardware, NCs and thin clients differ from standard PCs in that more hardware resources are shifted to the server. For instance, some of these computers will come without hard disk drives, and rely on the server for storage.

Both Sun and Microsoft are answering a growing need--or at least a perceived need--for network computers (NCs).

Lowering the cost of corporate computing is the principal objective and attraction of NCs, according to analysts. "NCs promise certain fundamental benefits: no one has to install, maintain, or trouble-shoot software on them. NCs should cost less to purchase, maintain, and support if--and only if--they meet user requirements," said Gartner Group analyst Tom Austin, in a recent report on client-server computing.

But not everybody is going to use an NC or thin-client computer. "Fewer than 10 percent of knowledge workers will use NCs as their primary computing device...NCs will rise to no more than 15 percent of commercial desktop [in shipment volume] by 2001," added Austin.

He added, however, that 40 percent of users who do data entry or "purely production office tasks" should be using NCs for at least some portion of their work by 2001.