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Java software for NC-like interface

Plenium wants to offer some of the capabilities of network computers--without having to use one.

Dallas, Texas-based Plenium announced Java software that offers PC users some of the capabilities of network computers--without having to actually use a network computer.

Plenium's product, called NetDesk, is a Java program that replaces the graphical interface provided by the computer's standard operating system (OS), such as Windows NT or Unix, with a new customized desktop.

Users can choose desktops that look and act like the Windows or Unix operating system from any computer that can run Java programs, with the added advantage that programs will display the same information no matter which computer is used. For instance, if an employee types in data to a spreadsheet at work, the same data appears on any other computer after they log in.

Network computers (NCs) such as those proposed by Sun Microsystems work in a similar fashion--both NetDesk and NCs store information on a server computer, but NCs typically don't offer changeable interfaces.

Sun in fact offers a product similar to NetDesk called HotJava Views, which is a graphical environment that currently works only on its JavaStation NC but is slated to work on any device that can run Java programs. Like HotJava Views, NetDesk includes Java-based email and notepad programs to achieve portability across platforms.

Both Sun and Plenium appear to hope to provide the interface to manage local and network files--sort of like becoming the next Windows 95 for Java programs. This is needed because Java programs running in browsers don't have a consistent look and feel, says Adam Allard, president and CEO of Plenium.

"There really are Java applications that comprise everything people need, but what all developers have faced is that they are at the mercy of whatever browser the application is running in. We hope to unify that community so Java developers have an environment [with] a standard look and feel," Allard says.

Despite Plenium's claims that NetDesk will basically render the OS "irrelevant" by providing a familiar graphical framework for Java programs, an underlying operating system such as the JavaOS or Windows NT, is still needed to control the basic hardware functions of a computer. And that, analysts say, is something Plenium will have a hard time doing.

"When you play around the edges of the operating system, you are dancing with elephants, and the elephants are IBM, Digital, Microsoft, Sun, Apple, and SGI," says Clay Rider, chief analyst with Zona Research. "They have lots of money, so how will [NetDesk] unseat the big guys?" he asks.

Providing a unified interface isn't enough, Rider says.

"If the argument is that you have a consistent look and feel, that sounds great, but why should people care?" Rider asks. He thinks the market for people who are moving between dissimilar desktops is not a large one, and even if it is large enough for Plenium to make a good deal of money, Microsoft will soon be offering similar capabilities through its products, for instance.

A preview version of NetDesk is currently available for free. General availability of the NetDesk product as well as associated server software is expected by July of 1998.