If successful, the new operating system, called JavaOS for Business, will be incorporated into not only deskbound NCs but also kiosks, airline ticketing systems, cell phones, and a wide variety of consumer or custom hardware platforms. By using the same OS, device makers and their customers will be assured of a certain level of compatibility.
The lack of software standards has been a key reason for the stunted sales of Java-based NCs, according to analysts and executives. Balkanization of operating systems makes the decision to move to NCs more difficult for corporations because compatibility with future products or alternative brands is difficult to ensure.
Non-desktop devices in fact appear to be the main focus of the companies moving the NC concept forward. Janpieter Scheerder, president of SunSoft, referred repeatedly to kiosks and similar devices as the type of computers where third-party vendors might use the OS. The network computer is not a PC replacement, he said, but an "additive" platform.
As reported yesterday, Sun and IBM will offer the device in their desktop units. IBM plans to incorporate the OS on its Network Station NC in early 1999.
Sun will migrate JavaStation users from its Java OS to the new JavaOS for Business over the course of the next year. By then, almost three years will have elapsed since Sun announced the JavaStation concept.
"This will help accelerate the advantages of network computers and network computing," said Mike Lawrie, general manager of IBM's network computing software division. "We are providing a consistent application platform."
In addition to developing the product together, the two companies will work to convince software developers, hardware makers and integrators to adopt it.
Today's announcement follows last week's debut of a consumer version of the Java OS. Last week at the JavaOne developers conference Sun introduced Java OS for Consumers, an operating system for such things as cell phones and karaoke machines. Sun executives also said the company was licensing a Java OS for corporate makers of network computers following the long-awaited release of the JavaStation.
JavaOS for Consumers is a hybrid of PersonalJava, a slimmed-down version of the system that runs on desktop machines, and Chorus, a real-time system that Sun purchased last year.
Sun and IBM have been the lead advocates for using network computers in corporations, a movement that has stalled somewhat as PCs have become more manageable and cheaper over the past two years. NCs were originally designed to lower the cost of corporate computing.
The machines were also designed to be a platform for bringing Java programs into businesses, something that has failed to happen so far. Companies that make NCs say they are seeing more demand for low-end computers that use existing technologies because few enterprise-wide Java applications exist.
Emblematic of this trend is Allstate's purchase of about 45,000 IBM Network Stations. The largest NC deal to date involves machines that run programs based around Windows NT and other platforms but not Java, according to an IBM spokesperson.
Sun and IBM already market network computers that take advantage of Java. Sun's JavaStation, which became commercially available for the first time last week, uses the Java OS from Sun. IBM's Network Station uses the Java Virtual Machine 1.1.2 running on top of a Unix kernel OS.
The two companies have been cooperating on developing a Java OS for some time, said Lorraine Hariton, senior vice president of marketing at Network Computing Devices, which makes the IBM Network Station. It is one of the many Java development efforts at both companies.
"Sun has a lot of work in the Java space. IBM has had a lot of developers on Java," she said. "One of the collaborative efforts is the Java OS."