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Java NC rationale not clear

Sun network computers based on the Java OS are getting the big ho-hum from the market, in part due the inability of manufacturers to ship products.

The Java programming language is still getting favorable attention from software developers, but Sun network computers based on the Java operating system are being met with a big yawn on the market, partly because of the inability of manufacturers to ship products.

Yesterday, Sun quietly announced that it finally has begun shipping its JavaStation NC, after many delays. But few large-scale rollouts have taken place.

The largest deployment outside of Sun is inside the Transportation Department of New South Wales, Australia, which has deployed 900 units. American Airlines has installed approximately 30 JavaStations, a source close to Sun said.

Clearly, there is a lack of industry momentum. Mitsubishi recently decided to halt development of its Mon Ami NC, company executives said, and the development of a portable device apparently is in limbo after being introduced to great fanfare at last year's JavaOne conference.

The lack of vendor commitment to the concept is limiting the growth of the NC market, according to analysts. "It takes more than one prominent vendor to make a market," said International Data Corporation analyst Eileen O'Brien in a report on the NC segment.

"We underestimated the work that would be required to develop a mission-critical operating system," said Ted Murguia, group manager for Java Systems group. Now that the OS is ready, Murguia said Sun will go back to its original Java OS licensees such as IBM and talk plans for product development.

"Right now, the JavaStation is specifically targeted at fixed-function applications that tend to be developed primarily in-house. Availability of those depends on each company," Murguia said. By this logic, more JavaStations will be sold when more companies decide to use Java. Office productivity applications are being developed, but Murguia added that these kinds of programs are less important for the market they are targeting.

The pilot program with Federal Express is still in place, he noted, despite reports that FedEx will either quit or scale down its original commitment to Java.

To date, Toshiba is one of the few major manufacturers other than Sun to ship Java-based NCs. In late February, the company began shipping desktop and portable models. The former uses a 230-MHz StrongARM processor and sells for $676.

In Japan, Toshiba is offering a 4.1-pound notebook with a 10.4-inch dual-scan display and a 200-MHz StrongARM processor, priced at the U.S. equivalent of $1,538. The notebook can operate unattached to the network, unlike its desktop brethren, although any applications users need must be downloaded before they hit the road.

Toshiba executives say the company has not decided whether the products will be marketed in the United States, something that could further limit visibility for Java-based NCs.

IBM is toying with the idea of a Java-based NC, quietly demonstrating a Network Station model with the Java OS in part to judge potential customer reaction to the device. But Big Blue already has enjoyed a measure of success with its NC models by offering the ability to access to Unix and Windows applications.

Java devices must address the massive Windows market. In fact, Sun was demonstrating Windows-related technology at the JavaOne conference, saying that some of its customers needed a "migration path." A small Java program can be used to intercept data from a server that is running software devised by Citrix in order to display the Windows program on the screen.

Offering access to a wide range of applications will be the key that helps expand the market for NCs to 6.8 million units by 2002, according to IDC.

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