Oracle unveils `Internet Toaster' prototypes
Oracle adds wizard for PowerBrowser, JavaWorks and `universal server'
At the Oracle Developer's conference in San Francisco in late February, Oracle Development Corp. CEO Larry Ellison finally went public with the company's long-awaited strategy for creating a low-cost network access device that would sell for less than $500.
Ellison showed mock-ups of a family of network computers that the company hopes will provide a cheaper way to access network resources such as the World Wide Web. Included in the company's plans are a desktop computer, a laptop, a smart telephone, a set-top device for televisions, and a personal digital assistant and two-way pager.
Ellison demonstrated the desktop device, which is expected to offer a personal smart card for security, 8 megabytes of RAM, an Ethernet port, a PC Card III slot (the slot formerly known as PCMCIA), a keyboard, and a mouse. It is expected to connect to the network via a 28.8 kilobit per-second modem or an ISDN link, but will not support 14.4 Kbps modem connections.
The unit can use as a display any computer monitor or television, and is slightly smaller than an IBM ThinkPad. The device will cost $295, Ellison estimated. The laptop version will cost about $595, and will have an eight-inch gray scale screen, while the phone will cost about $495.
Like Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java language, which was initially designed for interactive television, Oracle's network computer is also based on work the company did for low-cost set-top boxes. In the demonstration, the network computer had a very simple user interface without windows or pull-down menus, familiar from Oracle's interactive television demonstrations.
"People have said that Oracle is redeploying its set-top box technology for the Web. You know what? That's true," Ellison said.
Oracle's network computer will download all its applications from a network server, and it has no local storage. The company is creating a basic productivity suite featuring a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics applications. It will be able to use Microsoft Word and Excel files and also will feature a Netscape Communications Corp. Navigator 2.0-compatible browser, as well as calendaring, scheduling and database access.
Oracle's family of network computers will run a tiny operating system that will take up about 30K of RAM. It will be Posix compliant, and developers will be able to write their applications in either Java or in BASIC, said Ellison.
The device Ellison demonstrated was a cabinet that connected to an actual computer off-stage. Oracle plans to produce versions of the system using both ARM Ltd. and Intel Corp. processors. The company will try to launch systems based on both processors in September 1996, he said.
The company won't actually build the device, but Ellison would not name its manufacturing partners, although he said the company will have partners in Japan, Korea, the US, and Europe. (See the attached sidebar for a brief story on Japanese firms developing their own Internet terminals.)
"If you take the top 10 PC manufacturers in the world, and then figure we got about half of them, that would be right," he said.
Oracle will provide a common hardware reference platform, and help manufacturers to get their prototypes working, he said.
Oracle adds wizard for PowerBrowser, `JavaWorks'
The company announced a new feature for its Web browser and said it is developing cut-down Web versions of Microsoft Works applications.
Mark Benioff, Oracle's senior vice president of Web products, showed off the Database Wizard, which should be available in mid-April. This will be a feature of the Oracle PowerBrowser, currently available in its first developer's release.
The Database Wizard allows the user to select a local database and then construct Hypertext Markup Language pages that contain simple database queries. These pages can then be accessed directly or uploaded to servers.
Oracle is targeting its Web products at the corporate Intranet user. Its browser features built-in server and database functionality.
Oracle also is developing a range of server-based Web applications, code-named "JavaWorks," which would enable Web users to download word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics functions to their browser, Benioff said. These would be compatible with existing Microsoft Office applications, he said.
Although Oracle is not a major player in the desktop productivity applications market, Benioff said that it is important for Oracle to demonstrate the potential of Internet technologies.
Oracle users seek substance in `universal server'
In other Oracle news, the company launched its next-generation database product in an attempt to bring both multimedia applications and the Internet into the mainstream of enterprise computing.
Oracle's Universal Server, launched here at the company's developer conference, provides support for multiple data types and has Web support built in. By bringing together relational data with video, audio, messaging and spatial information, the company hopes to make good its ambitious goal of providing access to any data type, from any client, on any server.
The system is currently shipping only on the Solaris and OS/2 operating systems, with pricing dependent on configuration. Support for further operating systems will follow later this year, officials said. Oracle's new text-search capability, ConText, is also not available right away, but is due to ship by June.
In a blizzard of new product announcements, Oracle also unveiled the next version of its core database product, which is at the heart of the Universal Server. Oracle 7 release 7.3 provides support for bit-mapped indexing, star queries and hash joins, features which enable sophisticated searches and boost the database's performance for data warehouse applications.
Universal Server also incorporates a suite of new network functions, called the Advanced Networking Option. This enables support for security and authentication using the Sesame and Kerberos 5.0 standards, as well for the SecurID smart technology. It also provides directory functions such as single log-on to multiple databases, which can be integrated with other directory services such as Novell Inc.'s NetWare Directory Services and Banyan Systems Inc.'s StreetTalk.
A database capable of handling audio and video needs applications that can make use of these data types, and Oracle declared full support for Universal Server's functionality in its existing developer tools, Developer/2000 and Designer/2000. The company also announced a new authoring tool for distributed multimedia applications, called Oracle Media Objects for Windows. A free version is available now on Oracle's Web site: A special offer price of $99 will be available until May.
Oracle is bundling its existing Internet server into Universal Server, but is pitching the whole package as Internet-enabled, rather than highlighting this as a component within it. Oracle also launched the new version of its Web server, Oracle WebServer 2.0, to replace Common Gateway Interface scripts with the Oracle Web Request broker, which the company will make available as an open API.
The Oracle Web Request Broker create a standard interface from the Web to the Universal Server. Oracle WebServer 2.0 is due in April for Windows NT and SPARC Solaris, and will cost $2,495.
Users at the Oracle conference could have been forgiven for overlooking the company's Universal Server announcement. The huge press interest in the company's plans for a network computer costing less than $500 meant that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison barely mentioned the new database during his keynote address, even though the product was officially released the day before.
Some users at the conference, perhaps reacting to the hoopla surround the network computer, seemed dismissive of Universal Server.
"Universal Server? I want to see it. We had a development version of their text database, and it failed miserably on Oracle 7.0. How did they get from relational data to support for text, and video, and everything else, in six months? There is more to this than meets the eye," said a senior programmer analyst in a US government data center, who wished to remain anonymous.
"Right now, Universal Server is vaporware. The speeches yesterday were like a rock concert. If there is meat and potatoes behind the hype, we will be looking at that," said Francis Rolle, database administrator in corporate information systems for the City of Oakland, CA.
For other users, Universal Server represented just the next level of database functionality from Oracle, rather than a major change.
"The video [feature] is nice, but companies can't justify the cost of the network bandwidth required for those features. I see Universal Server as just the next version of their server," said Todd Wood, senior systems analyst at Cummins Engine Company, Inc., based in Columbus, IN.
Behind the scenes
Some conference visitors might indeed have thought they were attending a Rolling Stones performance rather than a computer conference. Attendees from around the world queued for more than 20 minutes before Ellison's keynote address, which packed the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton here, forcing many people to stand throughout the one hour and 15 minutes of his speech.
When public relations people freed up some unused press seating at the front of the auditorium, conference delegates climbed over the backs of the seats in front to get closer to the speakers.
According to a source close to the company, which has the lion's share of the global database market, Ellison had originally been expected to talk about Universal Server during his keynote, but intensive media interest in the network computer seemed to have changed his mind.
"I can imagine Jerry Held [Oracle's vice president in charge of Universal Server] pulling his hair out, wondering when Larry was going to talk about Universal Server," said the source.
Sun Microsystem Inc.'s Java programming language and Oracle's network computer have given both companies excellent publicity for products which neither plans to sell -- Sun plans to make the Java programming language available at no cost, and Oracle is a software company with no plans to manufacture network computers.
At least one visitor to the conference expressed doubts that Oracle and Sun would be able to do for low-cost network computers what IBM did for the PC.
"I don't know if Oracle and Sun are strong enough," said one database manager at the show.
Several conference attendees also expressed dislike for the constant carping about Microsoft Corp. and its CEO, Bill Gates. "I feel sorry for these guys -- they're bashing Bill, but I don't want to buy that network computer," said one database manager.
"The big-gun speakers are doing a fair amount of Gates-bashing -- but I came here to find out about Oracle. We need those PC applications. We would like to see more cooperation between the vendors," Rolle said.
-- By Michael Parsons, IDG News Service, San Mateo Bureau
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TOKYO -- Anxious not to be left behind in the industry's rush into the so-called network computing era, a number of Japanese companies are quietly developing their own Internet terminals.
Little-known X terminal maker Japan Computer Corp. last week launched what it claims is the world's first network appliance: a video game machine look-alike, powered by a 32-bit CPU and bundled with an in-house-developed Internet browser.
Priced from $495, the iBox is the first of a host of similar machines set to come out of Japan over the next year, including offerings from Sony Corp.
For many of the vendors the network appliance is seen as a means of bringing their expertise in building and marketing stand-alone consumer products, like televisions and stereos, into the digital age.
Though the Internet appliances under development in Japan are all similar in design, most Japanese vendors, including Sony Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. appear to be heading out on their own rather than following companies such as Oracle by licensing their designs.
Consumer electronics giant Sony, for example, expects by the fourth quarter to unveil an Internet surfing box based on a proprietary CPU and running an unnamed real-time operating system.
Meanwhile, Hitachi, better known for its mainframes, will use either an Intel or proprietary processor in its unit, which will also be launched in the latter part of the year.
Though details have yet to be revealed, the vendors are not planning to sell the units through traditional channels such as retail stores but instead bundled with services and content.
Sony, for instance, last month launched Internet information services that will use its terminal to attract users without PCs. "We don't think [the Internet terminal] will make money," said an official at Sony Communication Network Corp., the Sony subsidiary handling the service and terminal. "It is just a method for getting more subscribers." Toy maker Bandai, through its newly-established subsidiary Bandai Digital Entertainment Co., Ltd., is following a similar path.
At the rollout next month of Atmark, an Internet terminal based on
Apple Computer Inc.'s Pippin platform, Bandai will offer attendant
Atmark services including access to Franky Online, an Atmark-exclusive
online service with e-mail and electronic shopping.
-- by Rob Guth, IDG News Service, Tokyo Bureau