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Network computers to take on PCs

Oracle subsidiary Network Computer Incorporated introduces a hardware and software package for its network computers.

Oracle subsidiary Network Computer Incorporated (NCI) today introduced a hardware and software package for its network computers as other hardware vendors chimed in with NC-related announcements.

Accompanying the release of Oracle 8, the newest version of Oracle's widely used corporate database software, was the introduction of NCI's Network-In-a-Box and new Smart Card products. Wyse Technology also said that it will adopt NCI software for its NCs.

The release of the Network-In-a-Box, which includes all the necessary NC hardware and software, follows months of discussion and promotion of the Network Computer standard by Oracle as well as Java maker Sun Microsystems. NCI acquired Netscape Communications' major equity stake in Navio in a stock swap announced last month.

The Network-In-a-Box unites NCI's network computer software with hardware produced by other companies. The product consists of one Intel-based NC Server with NC Server software, NC Desktop client software, two Intel-based network computers, two NC smart cards for user security as well as one for administration, and networking hardware such as a small hub and cabling.

The entire package will cost $4,995 and be available in mid-July. Portable computer value-added reseller Propeller Portable Computer Products will be the first distributor.

Not everyone was impressed by NCI's announcement. Brian Murphy, an analyst with The Yankee Group, likes the idea of NC but remains cautious about Oracle's progress. Especially daunting in Murphy's view is Oracle's apparent intent to offer an alternative operating system to compete with Windows NT. "That would be a very expensive proposition."

The Network-in-a-box "is an evalution setup...The hold grail is the order for 10,000 machines," notes Murphy. While releasing such a product allows companies to create pilot programs, the deciding factor is whether NCI can put together a solution using NCs that will generate orders for 10,000 to 20,000 units. According to Murphy, Sun Microsystems and IBM, companies with longstanding corporate customers and extensive hardware experience, may be better positioned to land such business.

Murphy sees the most promising future for NCs coming through increased cooperation between Oracle, Sun and IBM, the major players in the market. Otherwise, defeating the Intel-Microsoft play of NetPCs will be difficult, if not not impossible.

Smart cards are also included in the package. The smart cards are being produced by Schlumberger. The company's smart cards for network computers, called the NC Card, is being termed a "network passport." It contains a small, silicon chip to store small amounts of information securely.

When inserted in a NC's reader, the card identifies the carrier to the network, eliminating the need to remember access numbers or connect strings. Identity of the carrier is checked using a personal identification number (PIN) that must be entered when the card is used. Once the user's identity has been checked, the NC can use the information contained in the card to access network information, databases, and private services such as email.

When a person signs into a NC using their card, the computer brings up a personalized desktop and provides access to the network and applications. When a user chooses an application, it is downloaded from the server to the NC.

Smart cards are seen as an important component of NC usage because of their security benefits as well as their ease of use.

In a related announcement, Wyse Technology today adopted the NC Desktop software suite created by NCI. The software will be used in the Wyse Winterm 4000 family of Enhanced NCs.

The Winterm 4000 family is designed to allow the use of Windows applications and Java applets, in addition to standard NC Desktop functionality.

The Winterm 4000 line uses Digital's StrongARM SA-110 processor. Booting is accomplished using data stored locally in flash memory rather than relying on a network server.

According to Wyse, the Winterm 4000 series is fully compliant with the Network Computer Reference Profile. All Winterm desktops come with keyboard and mouse, and the line starts at $500.