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Will we see a Java Internet terminal?

Alluring `Internet Toaster' idea meets skepticism from PC, X-terminal makers.
Dumb idea or creator of PCs as `legacy computers?'

By Erica Liederman

January  1996
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While no one in Silicon Valley's corridors of power was looking (they were all off somewhere making strategic decisions and fretting about Windows 95), the Internet caught on. And with the launching of the Internet as a free (well, almost free) and potentially ubiquitous computing system came a new way of viewing networked computing. The question is: Has the "old" model of the PC -- all the computing power in the world playing Tetris on your desktop -- gone the way of the mainframe, to be replaced by a "thin" Internet device costing around $500? Is the PC the newest legacy system, a breed marginalized by the Internet Toaster?

The developers of Java, the programming language riding highest on the Internet wave of hype and expectation, would have us believe so.

According to Ruth Hennigar, Sun Microsystem's general manager of the Java Products Group, the proliferation of Java licensing deals made in recent weeks speaks for itself. Sun envisions "...taking functionality out of the box. The Net OS is the operating system. You need only the simplest device to go out and get an applet... The phone is a good example of the kind of technology we're talking about. The device at the user level is incredibly simple, even though the back-end is much more complicated. You and I don't need to know how or where all the switching, voice processing, and -- in the case of voicemail -- storage is taking place."

Elsewhere at Sun Microsystems, work is already underway on an Internet Toaster. (More on this later.)

The word on the street
Computer manufacturers differ in their opinions about whether the Internet Toaster is necessary -- or even possible at sub-$1,000 prices. At the PC Outlook Technologic Conference held in Burlingame, CA in December, opinions and contradictions abounded.

Oracle Corp. claims to be building such a device right now. It will have, according to Oracle, an unidentified ROM-based OS; RISC processor; a plug-in PC Card modem; an option for high-speed network interface card or Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) card; high-level support for multimedia; an option for either flash memory storage or a low-cost hard disk drive; 4 to 8 megabytes of RAM; and a black-and-white or color LCD, or a configuration with an external monitor port.

Compaq, Sony, and Apple all claim to be uniquely positioned to design and build the Internet Toaster should it be possible. But skeptics, such as a number of Intel executives present at the conference, poo-poo'ed the assertion that it's feasible for less than a $1,000. The components needed to build powerful video, audio and graphics capabilities simply cost too much, they say. Furthermore, today's PC stands ready for the job. On the other hand, weren't IBM executives saying things like this at the start of the minicomputer boom 20 years ago?

LSI Logic Corp., Silicon Valley maker of application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chips, is offering an R3000-based, $50 chip designed specifically for use in Internet terminals. LSI Logic says the chip, 4 megabytes of RAM, and a modem, would sell for about $250. (Note this does not include a monitor.) LSI guesses boxes could be available by the third quarter of 1996. (LSI is no stranger to the consumer market: it supplies the chips powering the $300 Sony Playstation.)

Assuming the Internet Toaster's monitor is the Zenith in your living room, it seems likely a cheap Internet Toaster is possible if a small, stable OS is handy. At the moment none of the players are saying what this critical piece of software will be. Jeff Rulifson, Sun's vice president of Advanced Technology Development and the man responsible for Sun's Internet Toaster development said only, "For a small Java device, a small OS must be supplied. It would replace DOS. It is very small."


Other players
Mitsubishi Electronics America, Inc. a recent licensee of Java and the HotJava World Wide Web browser is working on building cost-effective, high-volume, digital networked products for industrial and commercial applications. Mitsubishi intends to embed Java and HotJava in chips used for a wide range of devices, enabling low-cost distributed computing applications -- interactive TV/set-top boxes, building control systems, wired and wireless multimedia products, Internet-related products, and consumer electronics products such as telephones and VCRs. But unlike other hardware vendors, a standalone Internet box is not the force behind Mitsubishi's multimedia network development.

"From the multimedia point of view, we are looking at using Java in a wide range of new products, both wireless and wireline, thanks to its ability to speed up interactivity and graphics," said Dwain Aidala, vice president and general manager of Mitsubishi Electronics' North American Multimedia Business Development Center. When asked when such products could be expected to appear on the market, Aidala declined comment saying, "We're not prepared to talk about specific products at this time."

The X terminal and the Internet
X terminal vendors are experts in displacing full-function computers with cheap, network-dependent devices. If anyone knows how to build a graphical, Windows- and Intel-free Internet Toaster it's these guys. As you'd expect, some think it's a neat idea. Others view its creation, particularly for the business market, as a waste of time.

Michael Ludgate, the Thin Client Product planning manager at Hewlett-Packard's Panacom division in Waterloo, Ontario emphasized the need for a "thin" client that could access not only the Internet, but corporate backbones through which users access corporate databases and send e-mail -- as well as applications written for Microsoft Windows.

"The point here is not to replace the PC," Ludgate said. "The point is to provide an alternative to it in a structured environment, such as a bank or financial institution where the primary use for the computer is to access data." The notion of a thin client product space represents what Ludgate terms a "cultural shift." He sees the thin client taking over certain environments in the near future.

"Some people think Java-based applications will become the universal OS, replacing Windows in three to four years," Ludgate said. "But even if Java does eventually provide (LAN-based) applications, there will still be all those other applications out there that are Windows-based." Furthermore, the notion that thin clients will replace PCs is in itself ludicrous.

"For a thin client with an embedded graphics chip, Java applets with little animations work fine. The question is, can you do more?" Ludgate envisions the answer as a dedicated thin client Java terminal, a server supplying java applications, and an additional intranet server.

"HP is primarily investigating the use of a thin client to commercial customers," Ludgate said. "Our customers are primarily interested in our investment at the server level. The goal is to put power in the server and distribute computing to desktops. Ultimately it's cheaper to build systems that way."

As far as a $500 price point is concerned, Ludgate echoed Intel's sentiment that component prices make "attractive" and "$500" mutually exclusive terms when it comes to Internet Toasters. "It's not possible," he said. "Monitors alone drive the price up much higher."

Tektronix Inc., of Beaverton, OR, a long-time manufacturer of X terminals has renamed its entire product line to reflect the evolution of X terminals into a "networked PC alternative." The company plans to use the term "netstation" rather than X terminal to describe products that are being used by commercial customers as alternatives to PCs for enterprise-wide networked applications. As far as a thin-client Web browser for the home market is concerned, Tektronix is not interested.

"Our market is the business market," said Lee Rainey, product marketing manager of Tektronix's Video and Networking Division. "What our customers want more than Internet access is access to the corporate LAN -- to the IBM mainframe databases, Unix workstations, DECstations, and so on." Tektronix's chief claim for its 400 series color terminal is its video capability: 30 frames per second over the corporate LAN, a feat that Internet device manufacturers-to-be will have to contend with.

"Our theme is to fulfill the concept of any data being available on any host. We want to be able to transmit any information anywhere, not just on the Internet," Rainey said. "We have several thousand customers, from those on IBM legacy systems to Unix customers. Why would they want to access the Internet? The worst thing that could happen to a bank is for stuff to somehow find its way out onto the Internet."

So why not just repackage a self-booting X terminal as an Internet Toaster? X isn't designed for that. "X requires lots of bits to be shipped over the LAN. With Java on a terminal, data doesn't get shipped locally," Sun's Rulifson said. "X terminals are not truly interactive. All of the computation takes place back on the server. There's an incredible latency problem which is only overcome if you're close to your server. X terminals don't work over the Internet."

But don't cry for the X Consortium, the group behind X Window System. It is reportedly working on "Broadway," a new version of the X protocol designed for Internet use. The X Consortium expects Broadway to appear this summer.

Proof of the pudding
Although a number of vendors have made noises about being close to having a working prototype for the Internet terminal, Sun was the only US company that would admit to having something built.

Jeff Rulifson guffawed at the suggestion that what he had in the lab was a functional prototype. "It's more a proof of concept. Whether it works depends upon the time of day." Rulifson declined to discuss the specifications of Sun's Toaster, nor would he speculate when its offspring would see the light of day.

According to Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com Corp., and now a columnist for InfoWorld, the UK company, Acorn Computers LTD announced in November that it planned to ship a "Wintel-free Internet station," called NetSurfer and hoped to market it in the US during the first half of 1996 for $299. As of this writing, however, the principals could not be reached for comment.

--Erica Liederman

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