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Mobile NC standard released

IBM, Sun, and Network Computer Incorporation release specifications for building mobile NCs to appear next year.

IBM (IBM), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), Oracle (ORCL) subsidiary Network Computer Incorporated, and others joined today to release specifications for building portable network computers, which are expected to appear next year.

Under the Mobile Network Computer Reference Specification, portable NCs will be Java-centric and built generally on the specifications for the standard NCs, said Phil Hester, vice president of development at IBM's NC division. The specification does not designate a particular processor or operating system.

At a minimum, mobile NC screens will have a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. The specification will be submitted to the Open Group, a nonprofit industry standards organization.

Network computers are loosely defined as devices that need a powerful server to do most of the processing. The JavaStation, for example, is a desktop NC with no hard drive, no slots for add-in cards, no floppy drive, and no CD-ROM drive.

Application Protocol Interfaces and Java standard classes--the blueprint specifications that will enable manufacturers to begin developing hardware--are expected to come out this year, said Jim Mitchell, a vice president at Sun's JavaSoft division responsible for system architecture.

Finished products based on the standards will then likely follow next year. Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, and Nokia were among the manufacturers to pledge support for the standards.

However, although NC proponents claim strong potential markets, skepticism remains over how or when the low-cost devices will become prevalent.

"Wireless communication is extremely costly and difficult to maintain," commented Rob Enderle, area director for Giga Information Group, a high technology research firm. "With the exception of Larry [Ellison] and Scott [McNealy], I don't anyone else is convinced it [the NC] will take over the world."

NC madness will continue tomorrow in New York when Oracle and NCI will host a working demonstration of an NC network in New York with 140 NCs and Oracle 8 database.

Mitchell said the new published standard will make it easy for hardware manufacturers to develop devices. But the fact that the standard is neutral toward operating systems also means that Windows CE--the mobile computing OS from Microsoft (MSFT)--could potentially be absorbed into the specification. A Java interface could be built upon CE, he said, with the whole package then inserted into an NC.

Such a fusion, he added, would expand the number of applications available for NCs. "We hope that Microsoft joins this so that there can be a host of applications running on a wide variety of devices," Mitchell said.

Microsoft, which is promoting its own low-cost computing device strategy with the Net PC, did not join the NC announcement.

Despite the snub, Hester said that the effort should not be discounted. "If you look at the number of companies involved in this announcement, I think it would be difficult to say that this is not a viable standard," he said.