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Sun turns PCs into NCs

After a delay, Sun Microsystems announces software that allows Windows-based PCs to perform as network computers.

After nearly a yearlong delay, Sun Microsystems announced the availability of software that allows Windows-based PCs to perform as network computers.

Using JavaPC Engine 1.0, first displayed in April of last year, computers running the venerable DOS operating system (OS) or the aging Windows 3.x OS can function as Java-based network computers.

The critical software component that does this is called a "Java virtual machine," which so far has been missing for computers running DOS and Windows 3.x. The software also lets information system administrators distribute applications to computers from a central server.

"There are millions of PCs out there that are running on DOS and Windows 3.x that are unable to run Java applications," said Nicholas Lorain, product manager for the JavaPC. "JavaPC is a software solution that you can install on any PC running DOS."

The JavaPC is Sun's latest entry into the lukewarm market for network computers. These are stripped-down computers that rely on central servers for storage and distribution of software, and Sun already sells one such Java-based device called the JavaStation.

But some question whether Sun is supplying what corporate customers really want.

"If this is something that customers really have a burning desire to have, it's not showing up in our surveys," said Greg Blatnik, vice president of Zona Research.

Blatnik pointed out the comparative paucity of Java-based application offerings as one reason the market for JavaStations is soft.

On the other hand, Blatnik said Sun's latest offering might actually help the company counter the lack of enthusiasm for NCs, because the JavaPC does not write over the basic operating system. "This kind of turns the tables, because if the PC is doing something useful in the organization, you don't have to replace it."

Dataquest analyst Martin Reynolds agreed that the JavaPC was a step in the right direction for Sun in its network computing initiative.

"Sun wants to promote the whole idea of network computing, and their whole objective is to sell servers," Reynolds said. "Their objective is to make sure there are many clients out there that run the applications."

The JavaPC Engine 1.0 sells for $99 per user, with discounts available for volume purchases.