Proponents of both network computer architecture and Windows-based terminal architecture are readying product releases that will breathe life into a fledgling category of computers that has yet to make its mark on corporate America.
The product releases further confirm the fact that network computers (NC) will, at least initially, be marketed as a terminal replacement device, a more modest ambition than the original goal of replacing PCs and one that presents certain competitive challenges. Chief among them: the NC's association with Java.
"Java could be the best, but it is an unknown," said Ahmad Gramian, prinicipal at CorpInfo Systems, a Los Angeles Integrator. "Typically, customers are pragmatists. They like to follow."
Network Computer, an affiliate of Oracle dedicated to NCs, will release enhancements to its server and client software on Monday, according to sources close to the company. The enhancements are expected to make it easier to for customers to integrate NCs into currently existing computing platforms.
Meanwhile, Sun maintains that it is on track for a November release of its new version of the Javastation, code-named Krups, as well as the necessary server-side software.
On the other side of the fence, a variety of vendors are expected to preview Windows-based terminals at Comdex in the middle of November. Running Windows CE 2.0, Windows terminals will be positioned as low-cost alternatives to NCs that fit better into current Windows architecture, commented Greg Blatnik, vice president at Zona Research. Commercial availability of these machines may come as early as Q1 1998.
NCs and Windows-based terminals are "thin client" devices aimed at reducing the overall cost of computing for large organizations. These devices are thin in that they typically perform only a limited number of functions. For the most part, thin clients act as a window to a server, where most of the computing and nearly all of the data storage takes place.
Thin client computing theoretically costs less because the entire system can be run from centralized servers.
The Krups minitower will be the first general commercial release of the Javastation, said a Sun representative. Until now, businesses had to present a specific case scenario to deploy the machines. The Krups device will contain the Java OS 1.1 and the Hot Java Views 1.1 productivity suite, and be supported by the Java SDK 1.1. It will cost $742.
If they wish, customers will also be able to purchase the version of the Javastation currently used in limited releases for $599, said sources.
Sun at this time will also debut the server software for managing Javastations. Starting at $1295, the server bundling will include the Java SDK and Hot Java Views 1.1, among other software.
Although originally envisioned as a competitor to the PC, NCs are now mostly thought of as terminal replacement devices. Sun Microsystems president Ed Zander, among others, has said in recent weeks that the terminal replacement market represents the potentially most lucrative market for these devices. The commercial release of Javastations has been pushed back several times.
"[NCs] will be great for terminal replacements, reservations, inventories, that sort of thing," said Randy Brasche, marketing manager for NCI.
This, however, could spell trouble for Sun, said Blatnik. If both Javastations and Windows-based terminals are geared to the same activity, there is no compelling reason to switch to Java.
"Customers want easier-to-manage, easier-to-administer lower-cost desktops. The way they get there doesn't matter," Blatnik said. "Java as a defining characteristic is not compelling enough."