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NC makers disclosed but buyers aren't

Just as 15 Network Computer manufacturers were announced, Oracle began yet another guessing game.

    As expected, some 15 companies stood up to be counted today as official Network Computer manufacturers at an event orchestrated by chief NC promoter Oracle. But just as Oracle finally ended speculation on who its partners are, CEO Larry Ellison posed a new guessing game to the industry: who are the unnamed telecommunications companies that he says have ordered 2 million of the devices?

    The manufacturers are:Acorn Computer Group, Akai Electronic, Funai Electric, IDEA, Nokia Group, Olivetti, SunRiver Data Systems, Teco Information Systems, Uniden, Wearnes Technology, Wyse Technology, Tatung, Lite-On Technology, and Mitac.

    Among the U.S. manufacturers, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Apple Computer also announced their support for the NC Reference Profile, a set of specifications that will unite the boxes from all the vendors into one big interoperable platform.

    The first box for consumers is to ship in September from Acorn, while IBM may take the lead on systems for corporate users with a PowerPC-powered, $750 desktop unit due by the end of the year. Akai plans to ship $300 Internet Connection, an NC terminal that connects to a television for displaying information, by Christmas as well, but the delivery schedules for most of the other manufacturers were vague. Apple CEO Gil Amelio said the new Pippin devices starting to appear now, as well as the existing Newton hand-held computers, are already NCs in the sense that they comply with the Reference Profile. But the company is on record with plans to add a $1,000 Internet terminal based on the Pippin OS by the end of the year.

    That clears up the mystery of who will make these devices and approximately when they'll be available. But Ellison wasn't through making the industry wonder about the real plans for his NCs. He said at the press conference that certain unnamed telcos have placed orders for 2 million NCs but didn't say which lucky manufacturers had landed the orders or when they would be delivered. The implication, however, is that the telephone companies will give these devices away to consumers to seed the market for Internet access services.

    As Marc Andreessen, Netscape Communications' vice president of technology, put it: "Over the long term, a set of devices may end up being free through subsidies from telephone companies." Andreessen was on hand to endorse the NC Reference Profile.

    Although Ellison and company were careful to avoid saying that the NC replaces the PC, Ellison did lay out his theory that the NC will be the device to make Internet access as ubiquitous as the telephone. "The goal of the NC is nothing less than universal service in the same sense as universal telephone service."

    The one company that has a similar goal--to make its software ubiquitous--was absent, however. In response to a question about why Microsoft was "excluded" from the event, Ellison said he believes that Microsoft will eventually bow to the NC's success: "You can't beat MS by envying them. You have to beat them by building better products. There's no doubt in my mind that MS will accept NC standards."

    Ellison's confidence notwithstanding, Oracle and the assembled NC manufacturers still must overcome a fair amount of skepticism about the public's interest in the stripped-down machines. But come this fall, the industry will get a chance to see if the NC is the device that will bring computing power to a new range of consumers.

    "In the 1980s, Apple came out with a product that put a smile on PCs. In the '90s, we want to put a smile on the Internet," Amelio said.

    Related stories:
    Oracle opens software shop for NC
    Net box's fate hinges on developers
    Net appliance for Pippin unveiled
    Java OS to make debut this month
    Oracle wants partners for NC standards
    Oracle gets NC religion
    Oracle to debut $500 Network Computer
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