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Gage shows off Sun's $1,000 NC in Brazil

Meanwhile, Acorn readys $500 Java-ready Network Computer

By Elinor Mills, IDG News Service San Francisco Bureau, Niall McKay, IDG News Service London Bureau, Jeanette Borzo, IDG News Service Paris Bureau

June  1996
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Rio de Janeiro -- Sun Microsystems will sell a workstation version of a network computer for less than $1,000, possibly as early as this year, John Gage, director of Sun's science office, said during a press conference at Americas Telecom here in mid-June.

Toting a working model of the machine, which has a marketing name of the Zero Administration Cost Station, Gage said that banks, trading firms and other financial institutions, and retail companies, will be among the first customers.

With a 32-bit SPARC II microprocessor, PC Card (PCMCIA), 24-bit color card, 16-bit sound card and 1 gigabyte hard disk, the device is a few steps up from the much-publicized versions now on drawing boards across the industry, which are being pegged at $500 with 8 megabytes of RAM and no local storage. Monitor, keyboard, and pointing device are not included with either version.

The price will rise as users add storage and other features, such as the security software that is vital to financial institutions, Gage said.

Consumer electronics companies are leading the pack with network devices that include the Java Virtual Machine. For instance, Sharp Corp. is porting Java to its Wizard personal organizer, which about 800,000 people in Japan now use, Gage said. And Sony Corp. has made a Java workstation that "we haven't seen," he said. "We heard about it from the Prime Minister of Malaysia."

Prospective customers have been visiting Sun in Mountain View, CA, telling engineers that they are interested in buying the devices in bulk and detailing their specific equipment needs, Gage said. Sun is planning several models, he added.

"There will be millions of these devices [network computers in general] sold in the next six months," he said. "Who will get the final order, we can't say."

Gage initially said the devices would ship in volume before the end of the year. A Sun marketing spokeswoman stepped into the discussion and said that an announcement of the product and its availability would come by then, but that the company couldn't commit to releasing a product that "hasn't even been formally announced yet."


Acorn readys $500 Java-ready Network Computer
Meanwhile in London, Acorn Computer Group Plc, the company responsible for developing the network computer specification for Oracle Corp., will launch what it claims is the world's first NC, called the NetStation.

NetStation will be launched in the US on June 25, and will be ready for volume shipment in October, according to Hermann Hauser, co-founder and head of research at Acorn. He told delegates at the Venture Markets Europe conference here in mid-June that the product will be targetted at consumers and marketed by two new Acorn spin off companies: NChannel in Europe, and NetChannel in the US. While NetStation cost below $500 in the US, it will be slightly more costly in the UK at around $598 or 399 pounds. Acorn is only producing one model, which will be sold through the consumer electronics retail channel.

Internet connections for the NCs will be provided by local ISPs (Internet service providers) under NetChannel and NChannel umbrella brands.

"When they buy the NC, customers will be given a smart card," explained Hauser. "The card will store user information such as e-mail address and customer preferences. All the customer has to do is plug the NC into the power for electrons, a telephone line for bits, and a TV for photons," he added. The customer can then use their smart card in any NC-compliant product in the world and send or receive e-mail or access their own documents, according to Hauser. When the customer switches on the NC, it will dial a 1-800 number and log-on to the internet automatically.

"The customer will then tell [the NC] who they are, and what their interests are, and the information will be stored to their smartcard," said Hauser. "We will lead them to the Internet sites which they may find most interesting." Targetting the right customer with the right information is crucial to the success of the product, according to Hauser.

NetStation will connect to the Internet over a 28.8K-bits-per-second modem and can be controlled from either an infrared-attached keyboard or a TV remote control. The product will give users the ability to compose documents, send and receive e-mail messages, and surf the Net.

NetStation will be manufactured in the Far East, according to Hauser, who has just returned from a tour of Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where he has been in discussions with hardware manufacturers, he said.

The Holiday Inn hotel group has already expressed interest in putting NetStations into its hotel rooms, Hauser said.

Acorn, based in Cambridge, England and partly owned by Olivetti SpA of Italy, in January announced an agreement with Oracle Corp. to develop reference designs for a range of Network Computing Products. The following month Acorn set up a Network Computing Division to codevelop the NC specification with Oracle.

IBM sees Network Computer as a corporate solution
In Paris, a top IBM PC official said the Network Computer's capability to standardize hardware configurations and software options may become the corporate PC manager's best friend.

And even though the IBM PC Co. expects its forthcoming NC will be no friend to its PCs sales, IBM is more than ready to sacrifice a portion of its PC sales to a successful NC strategy.

Corporate managers are tired of having their most talented information-systems staff monopolized with technical support issues, according to Sam Palmisano, the IBM PC Co.'s new general manager.

Keeping up with the latest hardware releases is causing trouble for standard equipment-depreciation procedures, and "customers no longer want to deal with product obsolescence," Palmisano said at a Paris press conference June 19.

Also, because of the high cost of software -- including purchase price, installation time, and maintenance costs -- computers with a list price of $3,00 to $4,000 wind up costing companies $18,000 to $20,000 in total.

"A lot of that can be addressed in the NC technology," Palmisano said. "The NC helps solve these problems in many ways" by keeping standardized software -- which is easier to support -- available on the server. The PC Co. fully anticipates the popularity of its upcoming NC computer to cut into its PC business, but the IBM division is still jumping on the NC bandwagon with both feet.

"If you don't eat your own children, someone else will," said David Winn, general manager for personal computers in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. "IBM now shows a willingness to eat its own children. We'll be the first ones to kill our PCs to get to the NC."

Currently, the PC Co. is making final decisions on its NC configuration. "We have five prototypes in five different laboratories," Winn said. "We have to decide between them."

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