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Anatomy of the Network Computer

Vendors pitch it as both an inexpensive Internet access device for consumers and a serious desktop productivity terminal for intranet use

By George Lawton

July  1996
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Major vendors are defining the standards of a "Network Computer" that promises interoperability. Hopefully, the "Network Computer" (now a trademark term), will provide both an inexpensive Internet access device for consumers and a serious desktop productivity terminal for intranet use. Although the devices have yet to be shipped, we pulled together enough facts from vendor statements to get a picture of what we'll see soon. (2,300 words)

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In May, Sun, IBM, Apple, Netscape, and Oracle announced they were working on The NC Reference Profile (see the sidebar for details), a set of guidelines for developing inexpensive network computing devices based on existing Internet standards. The profile is designed to promote the creation of a broad application base to run on NC clients. It does not specify a particular implementation of a Network Computer, nor does it preclude the addition of features and functions outside of the profile. The initial profile will be made available for review in July and is expected to be finalized by August 1996.

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle declared at the rollout, "This initiative has been formed in the interest of true open computing. Like the Internet itself, the NC Reference Profile has the potential to set in motion an industry that serves the interest of users instead of software developers and hardware suppliers."

The NCs are expected to be highly scalable in scope and will range from $200 palmtops to powerful engineering tools at the high end. They will be targeted at a variety of different marketplaces including information access providers, consumers, and enterprises. As new technologies emerge, the partners plan to recommend new profiles.

The initial profile is expected to include a minimum screen resolution of 640 by 480 pixels (VGA resolution on a PC), a pointing device such as a joystick or mouse, a keyboard, a speaker, and audio output jacks. Hard disks and floppy drives will not be required since the machines can download data and applications each time they connect to the network. The profile also covers Internet protocols, multimedia formats, and security features.

Suppliers who peddle NC-compliant products will be allowed to display the NC brand name. Different companies, however, are still debating how the brand will be used. On the content side, an "NC Friendly" logo will appear on Web sites accessible to NCs. (A SunWorld Online editor tested an NC on the magazine; everything worked fine.)

Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems said, "Sun has proven time and time again that open standards provide a level playing field, which drives innovation and choice. The ultimate winner in this model is the user. Adopting Sun's NFS and Java Technologies with the other open standards in the NC Reference Profile will provide all the vendors, from hardware manufacturers to content providers, with a common set of guidelines that will jump-start the Industry."


The rollout
Network Computers are appearing in phases. In the first phase, major terminal makers from the X Window System and IBM mainframe world have begun making their equipment compatible with the NC profile. In the second phase, which will begin at the end of 1996, traditional computer vendors such as IBM and Sun will start rolling out boxes designed from the ground up as NC computers. However, neither Sun nor IBM has made public all of the components that will go into their first generation NCs. In the third phase, application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) will allow vendors to shrink the size and cost of NC boxes dramatically.

If the $500 Network Computer sounds like a hoax pushed by Larry Ellison to get some publicity, one needs to look no further than the $500 Winterm from Wyse Technology to prove that it can be a reality. The company launched the terminal last fall at Comdex. The current implementation is designed to allow remote login to Windows NT servers, and Wyse plans to make it NC compatible as well.

Doug Chance, CEO of Wyse explained, "Wyse is extending its new T2000 based intelligent terminal product line to embrace the NC Reference Profile. Our success in shipping thousands of $500 to $750 award-winning T2000 Winterm products over the last six months demonstrated the real market acceptance for thin-client technology."

Wyse believes that the real savings from its Network Computers will not come from cheaper hardware, but from cheaper cost of ownership. A recent study by Zona Research found that enterprises can expect to save 57 percent of the ownership cost of PCs (over $3,000 per machine per year) by moving to Winterms.

The low-end model is the Winterm 2000. It consists of a gray-scale 14-inch monitor with 640 by 480 pixel resolution, a keyboard, and a mouse. Seven customized ASICs power most functions, with a 50-MHz, i486-class CPU shouldering the rest. It comes with a serial port, which can be connected to a modem, or an Ethernet card.

The entire device has only 1.5 megabytes of memory, which consists of 512 kilobytes of flash RAM for persistent storage, 512 kilobytes of VRAM for video and 512 kilobytes of DRAM for everything else. Wyse's Jeff McNaught said that (despite puny memory) it is sufficient to display Windows applications efficiently. He said Wyse keeps prices down because the boxes are not designed to run Windows applications locally. The applications run on an NT server and are displayed remotely using the IC83 protocol.

[ NC computer ]

McNaught explained, "We wanted to create a device that was truly efficient with memory. We wanted to meet or beat the price of a PC yet be able to simplify all of the complexity of Windows graphics."

The Winterm already supports most of the standards required for NC compliance, and can directly support the others by using an NT server to provide Web access and e-mail. Once the NC support is added later this year, the Wyse terminal will work in any enterprise regardless of its dependency on Windows NT.

Acorn Computer Group is leveraging the power of its ARM RISC chip family for use in a variety of low-cost Network Computers oriented towards Web potatoes surfing from TV sets. Acorn hopes to capitalize on its experience in creating set-top boxes for digital video. It plans to create complete product manufacturing packages based around its ARM7500 processor, which Oracle expects to relicense to major international vendors.

Acorn touts a ROM-based operating system that runs well with two to four megabytes of DRAM. In addition, it developed TV set drivers with flicker suppression, anti-alias font display techniques for readable home pages, and support for up to 16 million colors. At the core of the box, the ARM7500 chip sells in quantity for less than $50 (even at the high end) and consumes a negligible amount of power, which dispenses with the need for a fan.

Acorn believes that it has made the cost of the parts cheap enough that manufacturers will still be able to make a profit, even if they sell their boxes for less than $500. The design for a basic Net Computer box from Acorn consists of a $38 ARM7500 chip, $80 worth of RAM, a modem or Ethernet driver ($20 to $50), a $10 power supply, a $20 keyboard, a $20 mouse, and a $10 NTSC display driver. At the high end, you could put in a $50 Strong ARM chip which has the processing power of a Pentium, but only consumes a half-watt of power. The cost of these key components ranges from $198 to $240 depending on the choice of options.

One of Acorn's first customers is IDEA. At the NC Briefing, IDEA demonstrated the IDEA Internet Client Station, a Network Computer with browsing, SNA host access, multiprotocol communications, office automation, and Java support. Samples of the workstation are now available in limited quantities and shipping in volume will begin in the third quarter of 1996. The basic box is targeted at the sub-$500 range and will not include a monitor.

At the heart of the IDEA Client are a 40-MHz ARM7500FE, 4 megabytes of RAM, and 4 megabytes of ROM. An Ethernet port is included. The computer supports up to SVGA (1024 x 768) resolution. A single speaker provides audio output, while a keyboard and a mouse provide input. A port for an electronic smart card is included for security authorization.

For some vendors, one of the key reasons for moving to the Network Computer model is to provide investment protection to its customers. HDS Network Systems Inc., one of the largest X terminal vendors, believes upgradability will be one of its key selling points. On June 11th, HDS announced the HDS @workstation, a $750 network computer that can be upgraded.

In its base configuration, @workstation includes an Intel i960 processor, 4 megabytes of RAM, a keyboard, a mouse, a 17-inch gray-scale monitor, Ethernet, a serial port, and a parallel port. The machine runs on an HDS netOS operating system which is compliant with the NC Reference Model. At the high end, it can be expanded to contain 128 megabytes of RAM, a hard drive and an array of peripherals.

Michael Kantrowitz, executive vice president at HDS said, "This is no compromise device. That has been a big push back from users. Here is a device that is NC Profile-compliant and you don't have to pay the Wintel tax. You can have things like floppy drives and hard drives and run applications just as fast as on a Pentium."

An interesting HDS approach is to provide a migration path for customers that have already bought its terminals. "We will introduce a version of our operating system that will allow others to upgrade to have all of the capability of our new line of network computers," Kantrowitz said. "It will support Web browsing and Java with the same performance as a new line of computers. That is an amazing statement of investment protection. The benefit is especially high if the application is dependent on the speed of the servers. They can upgrade for less than $50 a user."

[ SunRiver computer ]

Another big X-Terminal vendor that is going after the NC marketplace is SunRiver Systems, a spin-off of AT&T formerly known as ADDS, and the number one vendor of terminals in the U.S. Last year it shipped about half a million terminals, which were mostly text-based. It is upgrading the operating system of its X terminals to make them NC compatible, and should begin shipping these in the fourth quarter of 1996.

SunRiver believes that it will be one of the first to market on a large scale because it will be easy to upgrade its X terminals, which have been shipping in the thousands of units. SunRiver claims it does not need to change its hardware to make its terminals NC compliant.

The base SunRiver system will sell for about $1,000 and include a 14-inch color monitor, an Intel i960 processor, a 32-bit Ethernet controller, four megabytes of DRAM, 512 megabytes of flash RAM, and two ASICs for video and bus control.

Network Computers will not all have to be constrained to boxes that sit on your desk. Momentum Inc. recently introduced the NetPAD, a personal Internet access device that costs less than $200. It is currently in beta test and is scheduled for full rollout early next year.

Although the NetPAD is not entirely NC-compliant, it does provide many features that a mobile netsurfer may need such as e-mail, Web surfing, and secure online services such as banking and stock transactions. In addition a service provider, or company could write new applications for sending and receiving data to the NetPAD.

The video cassette-sized NetPAD is pretty simple with no microprocessor, and a few microcontrollers for performing a number of dedicated functions. Graphics are low resolution and are displayed on an LCD screen. A built-in 2400-baud modem provides connectivity.

Richard Kosowsky, president of Momentum said, "We are not slimming down a PC. We have built a technology solution to match the needs of the consumer and the business." Kosowsky sees it used in a variety of business environments. Stock brokers might use it to conduct trades, and executives on the go may use it to keep contact with the office.

Java power everywhere
The number of small, low-cost devices for connecting to the net is likely to increase significantly with the introduction of Internet and multimedia chips. The most prominent example is that of Sun Microelectronics. It has proposed a number of different Java chips that will be used in a range of devices.

Sun has already started licensing Pico Java, the reference design for a Java ASIC that can be integrated into other larger circuits. At the JavaOne conference last month, Northern Telecom, Xerox, LG Semiconductor Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric, NEC Corp. and Samsung all announced plans to incorporate Java into its own products. With so much manufacturing prowess and marketing muscle behind them, it is only a matter of time before Java chips are running everything from copiers to wristwatches.

Raj Parekh, vice president and chief technology officer of Sun Microelectronics said, "Our licensing program is simple. Each company will have broad access to Sun's Java Technology-- from silicon to development tools, to our recently announced JavaOS. Our licencees will then incorporate these into their own Java Powered microprocessor designs and platforms. Each of these companies will then manufacture, market and distribute these processors worldwide."

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About the author
George Lawton ( is a computer and telecommunications consultant based in Brisbane, CA. You can visit his home page at Reach George at