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IBM to ship NC, cuts prices

A beefed-up version of its network computer can handle an entire suite of Java applications and approaches a PC in computing horsepower.

IBM (IBM) says next week it will start shipping a beefed-up version of its network computer (NC) that can handle an entire suite of Java applications and approaches a PC in computing horsepower.

The new Network Station Series 1000 series systems are being souped-up because they will be IBM's first NCs to use the Java-based eSuite WorkPlace business applications that IBM's Lotus Development unit rolled out earlier this month.

The software programs, consisting of email, calendar, word processing, spreadsheets, presentation graphics, and other software, are expected to be available in the first quarter of 1998, while the Network Station 1000s will start shipping next week. This is the first time IBM will ship a complete set of software for NC users, moving the network computer closer to the personal computer in terms of what users can do.

Performance also approaches that of a PC. IBM says the new Network Station Series 1000 will come with a 200-MHz PowerPC 603e processor and 32MB of memory in order to take advantage of Java programs. Previous IBM NC models could run smaller Java programs, but had much less powerful processors. The PowerPC 603e processor is already used in Apple Macintosh desktop computers.

Overall, the new Network Station is an example of how hardware differences between NCs and PCs are shrinking--both can require powerful processors at the client computer, and both will be available at the sub-$1,000 mark in the corporate market.

"My view is that it sounds like it makes sense to have as powerful a processor [on the NC] as possible with a fair amount of memory on them, if you have the bandwidth to get [Java applications] to them," says David Andrews, managing partner of D.H. Andrews. D.H Andrews is a systems integrator based in Cheshire, Connecticut which also publishes market research reports for clients.

The problem with Java is twofold: slow performance and a lack of applications, Andrews says. There isn't a tremendous amount of packaged software available yet because there are few NCs available, but Andrews thinks that is starting to change.

"There is enough interest in NCs now that we are following the market. Customers are now interest in this phenomenon," says Andrews.

One major distinction between a PC and NC stands out: The IBM NC has neither a hard drive or floppy drive, hallmarks of the personal computer world. IBM also also says its NC will still be less expensive overall because it is easier to do system administration tasks such as installing new software programs.

Meanwhile, a number of variations on the NC theme are emerging among the original proponents such as Oracle, Sun, and IBM.

For example, Umax Data Systems will start selling its NC-300 computer by next month, according to officials. The system, destined for the corporate market, has a 166- or 200-MHz Pentium processor and 16MB of memory and runs the "NC OS," the operating system developed by Oracle affiliate Network Computer, Incorporated.

The Umax NCs download programs from a central server. At the desktop, a piece of software called the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is used to help run Java-based applications using a powerful processor located in the client machine. IBM's Network Station Series 1000 will work in a similar manner when running Java programs but the JVM runs on top of its own, yet-unnamed operating system.

By contrast, IBM's earlier Network Station Series 100 and Series 300 functioned mainly as "green screen" or "dumb terminal" replacements. These terminals use software based on Citrix technology to access data and applications on a Windows NT or IBM AS/400 server, for example. These Network Stations mainly rely on the server to do information processing.

Because of the differences in hardware implementations, IBM Netscape, Novell, Oracle, and Sun earlier this month said they had agreed to meet in January to develop industry-wide technology specifications standards for NCs.

The specification would then be submitted to an open standards body for review in order to help build support for the devices. The companies are expected to use Sun's Java language as a platform for development of future NC software.

In related news, as reported last week by CNET's NEWS.COM, IBM plans to announce price cuts of up to 10 percent on its PC 300 line of corporate desktops and shipment of the ThinkPad 770, its first foray into supplier assembly for notebook computers.

Under IBM's new supply-and-delivery practice, the company authorizes suppliers to ship components directly to reseller locations, a change of process the company expects will allow speedier assembly to take place whenever demand dictates.

The moves are part of a broad effort to keep pace with direct marketers like Dell Computer (DELL), which have steadily gained market share in recent years.

One model in the PC 300 line, the PC 300GL, is now available for $999, the same price as the new network station, with which it may well have to compete for corporate desktop space in the future.

Reuters contributed to this report.