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Sun gets tough with JavaStation

In a long-anticipated announcement, Sun aims its network computing guns at the Microsoft-Intel juggernaut, asking corporate PC users to move to a stripped-down "thin client."

NEW YORK--In a long-anticipated announcement, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) aimed its network computing guns at the Microsoft (MSFT)-Intel (INTC) juggernaut, asking corporate PC users to move to a stripped-down "thin client" model.

The JavaStation network computer, announced here today after being trumpeted for months by Sun officials, is priced at under $750 for a basic model and just under $1,000 for one that includes a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The unit relies on network-based access to applications, which the JavaStation will download, use, and then return to a central server over the Internet.

Sun's announcement comes one day after Microsoft and Intel announced their new strategy to reduce the high costs of maintaining personal computers in offering a "NetPC," a sealed-case box with limited features used primarily for surfing. The new computer will bring down the cost of ownership by offering limited features and security enhancement so administrators have more control of what programs the NetPC runs, according to proponents of the plan.

Total cost of ownership has emerged as a major issue facing the PC community as various surveys place the cost of a PC at over $10,000 per year. Sun CEO Scott McNealy said a JavaStation will cost as little as $2,500 per year to use.

At the Sun event here, company officials took several shots at their Redmond, Washington-based rival, even playing off the famous Apple Computer commercial that ushered in the era of the Macintosh. The video portrayed a Microsoft CEO Bill Gates look-alike espousing the virtues of "fat, not thin" clients.

Yesterday's Microsoft announcement was intended to blunt the effect of today's NC debut, and the enthusiasm of McNealy and Sun Computer Company President Ed Zander may have nearly drowned out the Microsoft-Intel media blitz.

Calling Java-based computing a paradigm similar to the advent of the PC and the mainframe, the two executives demonstrated how a JavaStation works. They turned on the 9-by-12-inch machine, quickly registered with the network, downloaded an application, and ran it, all within a couple of minutes.

Sun officials are attempting to establish a beachhead with the Java-based computing model in corporate America, where companies are constantly upgrading PCs and administrating them for users. "If anyone thinks the PC is easy to use, think again," McNealy said. After today's announcement, Sun executives hope corporations will do just that.

Sun introduced the JavaStation, the JavaOS operating system, a HotJava Views suite of email, a Rolodex of desktop applications, several different development environments, and a new set of Netra J servers to which JavaStations can attach.

The JavaOS is a stripped-down operating system that takes up only 3MB of memory.

Sitting on top of the operating system, HotJava Views consists of personal productivity applications that can be accessed by a HotJava Web browser. With an applet from Insignia Solutions, users can also access Windows-based applications. The JavaStation can also run software resting on mainframe hosts and applications normally used in terminal environments.

Corporate customers may also use the HotJava browser and toolkit to make customized home pages embossed with company logos, rather than the browser company's insignia.

The JavaStation also has an Ethernet connection that will be upgraded to a Fast Ethernet connection by next spring. The product will also include a flash memory feature by next spring as well that will let users turn on their stations and instantaneously gain access to applications without downloading them from a central server.

The JavaStations will ship in December. Financial services companies such as First Union are among the first with plans to roll out Java stations.

Sun also rolled out the Netra J series of servers that offer a preconfigured back end for the JavaStations. The series can handle 20 to over 1,000 JavaStation users and heavy-duty applications such as transaction processing programs. The server series starts at under $8,000 and extends to over $200,000. The servers will also be available in December.

The company sees most of the opportunities for JavaStations and "fat" servers in the corporate market, according to Steve Tirado, Sun's director of Java desktop systems.

But Sun has not given much thought to the consumer market. Yet. "We're very cautious about it," Tirado admitted. "It's an animal we don't know.

"Markets for the network-based products--beyond transaction processing and typical "dumb terminal" uses--include retailers, on-line kiosks, and telecommunications companies," he said.

FTD, for one, has taken a keen interest in Java. The floral delivery giant has 23,000 members and expects to see $700 million in online business by the year 2000. It sees the JavaStation as a perfect fit for their applications. Need an order entry application? Just click on the icon at the FTD Web site is the idea, according to William Phelan, vice president of industry strategy and member relations.

"We can provide these tools to our members very inexpensively [using the JavaStations]," Phelan said. "They just want function, function, function."

On that note, FTD will take the JavaStation on the road soon to members to see how they like it. Phelan said the JavaStation concept connected to the central FTD backbone running on Sun 4000 servers is headed for "likely adoption."