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No NC winner declared at Comdex

There are no winners at a shoot-out here among companies diving into network computers, but the midday forum did serve as a good barometer for the slowly emerging NC market.

ATLANTA--There were no winners at a Spring Comdex '97 shoot-out among companies diving into network computers, but the midday forum did serve as a good barometer for the slowly emerging NC market.

Executives from several companies entering the market for thin-client devices were joined by a packed house of interested users. With a Gartner Group study pegging the annual cost of ownership associated with the new boxes at about half that of a typical PC, the hype surrounding the network computer is high. Even notorious memory gobbler Microsoft has joined the fray, introducing strategies for lowering administrative costs, thin PCs, and a Windows terminal in an effort to leverage its desktop franchise.

Representatives included executives from systems companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems, as well as dedicated thin-client operatives such as Wyse Technologies, Network Computing Devices, and HDS Network Systems. Also joining the discussion was an executive from the Oracle Network Computer subsidiary.

Gartner Group analyst Neil MacDonald predicted a potentially significant market for network computers as replacements for legacy dumb terminals and outdated PCs, and as a first computer in corporate divisions that previously did not need computing functionality. MacDonald reiterated that the NC battle comes down to a war of computer software architectures, pitting Microsoft's ActiveX against Sun's Java. The actual hardware is not as important, he said.

Upcoming moves may speed NC adoption. A second version of the base software reference specification for the NC is expected to be introduced soon, building on the bare initial version that debuted more than a year ago. Also, network computers from major players such as IBM, Sun, and third parties using Oracle's software implementation have hit the market, and that could help move discussion away from a religious battle between Microsoft and NC visionaries to a common-sense discourse based on user roll-out strategies.

One systems administrator from the State of Florida said he had tested several NC implementations and was now looking for a company to help him integrate 100 of the new devices into the state's sprawling network. This could be where systems giants have an edge over smaller companies, a fact that a company like Sun was quick to trumpet.

Steve Tirado, Sun's director of product marketing for the company's JavaStation division, wondered how long companies such as NCD and HDS could survive as sellers of network computers without offering the back-end "fat" server components, one of his company's primary markets.

The shoot-out series here continues tomorrow with a forum focused on handheld computers.