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Oracle hawks NC framework

Oracle debuts its NC architecture and the much-hyped Oracle 8 database with a glitzy show at Radio City Music Hall.

NEW YORK--Oracle (ORCL) today made its boldest--and most public--declaration of war on the Microsoft-dominated PC market with the introduction here of its Network Computing Architecture (NCA).

The NCA, which Oracle has been hyping for over a year, consists of thin-client Network Computers, built by a handful of hardware makers, along with Oracle's database and server-based software. The scheme is intended to lower the cost of computing for organizations through centrally managed applications.

Today, Oracle's outspoken chairman, Larry Ellison, formally introduced the NCA, and the next version of the company's database server, Oracle 8.

While the topic of discussion ostensibly was new software, Ellison made no bones about the fact that the NCA announcement pits Oracle and its NC partners in direct competition with Microsoft, as well as the PC industry as it exists today.

"The NCA is a new generation of computing. It's long overdue and time for a change," said Ellison, speaking at a glittery event staged at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall.

The Oracle chief initiated the NC plan with a bang--literally. During a demonstration of NC's reliability, Ellison intentionally dropped an NC and a PC to a stage several feet below, causing a splash of sparks and computer fragments. He then showed that users could continue to work, even if their NC was in shards, by logging onto the network through any available NC.

Ellison reiterated long-standing criticisms of the PC: It's too expensive, too complex, and too hard to maintain. He also took repeated potshots at the limited scalability of Microsoft's Windows NT operating system and the complexity of Windows 95. "Every day is scalability day at Oracle," he said, referring to a Microsoft scalability day press conference, intended to establish Windows NT as a viable option for enterprise applications.

Ellison also repeated predictions that the NC soon will be widely accepted.

"We'll see hundreds of thousands of machines shipped in the first year. Very quickly, we'll see entire industry move to this model. By the year 2000, NCs will outsell personal computers," he said.

Whether Ellison's predictions come true remains to be seen, hands-on demonstrations of various NCs at the event here did little to win new converts to the NC scheme. Many reporters and analysts complained that demo machines performed slowly or even crashed during use.

But the event did serve as notice that Oracle is serious about competing with Microsoft and the PC world.

To do that, the company still needs to get its development tool house in order. As reported June 11 by CNET's NEWS.COM, Oracle has delayed indefinitely a development tool, code-named Sedona, originally slated to ship in conjunction with the Oracle 8 database.

Ellison maintained that developers don't need an object-oriented tool like Sedona to build Oracle 8 applications. He said the company's existing Developer/2000 toolset is more than adequate. "Developer/2000 is a better tool for building applications," said Ellison. "Why would we come out with a brand new tool that isn't as good as what we offer today?"

Ellison said Oracle will most likely make Sedona--which currently is in limbo--a Java-based tool. "When Sedona was started three years ago, it was a Visual Basic tool. That didn't make sense anymore. We are going back and making fundamental changes to Sedona," he said.

Oracle also announced pricing for Oracle 8. The database offers out-of-the-box support for text, video, spatial, numeric, character, and date data types, as well as two new data types, image and time series. In addition, Oracle 8 will allow third-party and corporate developers to add additional custom-defined, data-type support through a feature called extensibility.

Oracle 8 also dramatically increases both the number of users and the amount of data that the database can manage.

The database server is now shipping on Windows NT, Sun Solaris, HP-UX, AIX, IBM SP2, Sequent PTX, and Digital Alpha.

Pricing starts at $1,495 for a five-user license.

And if you needed more proof that the Ellison-Gates battle is now personal, consider this: Oracle said today it has committed $100 million to forming "Oracle's Promise" a nonprofit foundation intended to put an NC on every schoolchild's desk. Gates said yesterday his foundation would donate $200 million to install new PCs and Internet access in public libraries across the country.