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Intel aims low for new computer

The chipmaker offers design guidelines for low-cost computers.

Intel (INTC) today offered design guidelines for network computers and other inexpensive devices, underscoring the chip giant's efforts toward low-cost computing.

The company detailed specifications for a "lean client" design targeted at establishing standards for very-low-cost business computers, a market it has scoffed at in the past. The guidelines also cover server computers, to which these devices will be connected.

"This is everything south of the PC," said an Intel representative, referring to the fact that the design specs are targeted at devices that cost less than even the least-expensive personal computers now on the market. Prices for some devices are expected to be about $500. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

The guidelines are intended to be used by PC manufacturers as a starting point for developing devices including network computers (NC) and terminal computers. NCs are typically described as low-cost computers that run small, undemanding applications based on technologies such as Java, while a terminal computer is a "dumb" device totally dependent on a server for processing.

Intel expects to complete the guidelines by early next year.

Oracle subsidiary Network Computer Incorporated (NCI), a major force behind the emergence of network computers, believes Intel has the ability to drive the market. "Intel is a leader in PCs. They are the supplier of choice of chips today, there's no reason to believe they can't also be for the NC market," said Bonnie Crater, vice president of marketing at NCI.

Several vendors already have or are expected to release operating system software for these computers, including Microsoft, IBM, Citrix, NCI, and Novell, according to Intel.

Microsoft is expected to offer its Windows CE-based operating system, which is most often currently used for handheld computers. IBM will offer its WorkSpace On-Demand operating system, while Citrix is providing its WinFrame technology, said Intel.

NCI's NC Desktop and NC Server Suite will be ported to both the lean client and server standards, according to Intel.

Also, computer makers including Compaq, IBM, Network Computing Devices, Packard Bell, Siemens-Nixdorf, Unisys, and Wyse Technology are "currently reviewing the lean client and network server guidelines," said Intel. Some or all of these vendors may bring out servers, devices, or both.

The guidelines will cover both ends of the client-server relationship. On the client or end user side, the guidelines will start with a very-low-cost Pentium processor, referred to as an "embedded" Pentium. For servers, it will specify systems using the Pentium Pro, ranging all the way up to powerful multiprocessor servers.

"The leaner the client, the fatter the server," said the Intel representative, referring to the fact that a large installation of terminal computers requires powerful servers to run them.

The company believes, however, that the market for the devices expected to emerge is relatively small. "We see it only as a replacement for [existing] terminals," a spokesperson said.

Nevertheless, this is yet more evidence of a steady push towards lower-cost computers. Intel is also looking at other low-end chips. Next year, for example, Intel will market a Pentium II for sub-$1,000 computers.

Although these strategies mean that Intel will be making more processors for lower-priced computers and devices than in the past, the company plans to make up the difference by selling a larger number of processors into the server and the workstation space, analysts say.

Intel is also discussing incorporating graphics and audio features into its chipsets--the critical companion chips which together with the processor form the core of a computer--for low-cost personal computers.