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Compaq looks at thin clients

Compaq revamps its strategy for corporate computing and looks at two network computers to provide lower-cost clients.

Under pressure to reduce the cost of owning and maintaining a PC, Compaq Computer (CPQ) is quickly, and radically, revamping its strategy for corporate computing, evaluating two separate network computers to provide lower-cost clients.

The high cost of purchasing, maintaining, and servicing a PC for businesseses--a figure commonly referred to as the total cost of ownership--is driving Compaq to completely reconsider the role of a personal computer in the enterprise and place increasing emphasis on network-centric "light client" computers, said Bob Stearns, Compaq's senior vice president of technology and corporate development.

Light clients are expected to drive down the total cost of ownership--which can be as high as $40,000 over a five year period for today's PCs--because company-wide management of these computers will more centralized and automated. Theoretically, the monumental task of installing, maintaining, and trouble-shooting software is greatly reduced.

The first light-client platform under consideration is the Intel-processor-based NetPC platform as recently proposed by Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and other PC vendors. The second platform includes specialized devices for vertical markets that are not necessarily designed to use Intel processors or Windows, Stearns said.

The upshot of these initiatives is that Compaq is setting new priorities for corporate computing. "We are now less focused on processor speeds and the number of bays and slots you have in a PC and more focused on cost of ownership," said Stearns.

Compaq's NetPC-based design would be a sealed-cased PC and likely exclude a hard disk drive. Sealed-case computers will not let users open the case to modify or reconfigure the computer. Along these lines, it would have limited functionality and not require flexibility, according to Stearns.

This design could replace some of today's typical low-end personal computers, he added. It would require a minimum configuration of Windows 95 or Windows NT and a 100-MHz Pentium processor.

Because it is network centric, the NetPC will be easy to manage and inexpensive to maintain. "Most software is on the network and updated from the server," he said.

Prices of these devices could go below $1,000, according to Stearns.

The second platform would be oriented around "Non Wintel (Microsoft-Intel) devices... these would be specialized devices for vertical market environments," he said. These would be for users who only need computers for very specific tasks such as order-entry and filling in forms, according to Stearns. This market is currently served by devices such as 3270 terminals.

It is not clear which one of these approaches will prove more popular. Some customers might also turn to NetPCs to replace 3270 terminals, Stearns believes.

A third strategy inside of Compaq is to lower the total cost of ownership for the current PC platform. This involves PC management technologies such as Compaq's SmartStart, Insight Manager, and Code Server technologies. The latter, for example, downloads software revisions to client PCs, instead of requiring a support person to go to individual desktops to update software.