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Gates pushes NetPC

Microsoft tries to steal Network Computer thunder with
promise of a `lite' Windows, sealed PC

By Elinor Mills, Kristi Essick, Bob Trott

November  1996
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San Francisco -- The age of "information at your fingertips" will be closer with the availability next year of portable data devices and NetPCs that will allow people to migrate to network-based distribution of data and software with existing hardware, Microsoft Corp. Chairman and CEO Bill Gates told developers in late October.

"We do believe in an evolutionary approach," where people can use their existing applications and infrastructure, he said in a keynote speech at the Microsoft Site Builder Conference, which has served as the launchpad for Microsoft's NetPC concept. One year after denouncing so-called networked Internet appliances, which have evolved into the Network Computer or NC, Gates is countering the movement with a similar model that relies on Windows software, his company's bread and butter.

Attendees met Gates' latest vision with skepticism.

"It's to be expected," said Michael Ormes, a system architect at Asymetrix Inc. in Seattle. "Microsoft's take on the world, their whole investment, is PC architecture. The folks touting the [NC] don't have that foundation. For them it's cheaper to cause a paradigm shift."

Some were skeptical about the entire thinner client movement.

"I'm really dubious about it," said Dave Jonsson, an information specialist at the Utah State Department of Community and Economic Development. For $500, the projected cost for NCs, "we've got to see what it can do."

On Monday, October 28, the day before Sun's JavaStation announcement, Microsoft released the specifications for the NetPC, the next evolution of Windows-based computers. NetPC is designed to allow centralized administration and distribution of information and software through the network.

"It will take all the richness of the Windows PC, [and] the software capabilities, but put it in a package that the amount of changes to the hardware in the life of the PC will be minimized," Gates said. "In most cases, the most you would do is add more RAM."

"Because it's a uniform hardware configuration, you've got a very low cost" for the PC itself and in terms of cost of ownership," he said.

The NetPC is different from the NC promoted by Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and others because the NetPC is compatible with PCs and will still have a hard disk to cache information from the server, Gates explained. "We will support diskless devices, but that's not part of the NetPC configuration."

Microsoft's active desktop concept, under which information goes to the user rather than the user having to go in search of the information, will be in "full deployment next year," he said. "In the world of technology, where people often are overly optimistic, it's quite nice to say things are ahead of schedule."

Ten years from now, a majority of the operating system software will function with natural input that allows the user to interact with the data, he added. "Natural interaction is something we are pulling together."

Also exciting is the emergence of portable devices, or information appliances, that will allow users to exchange information with PCs, he said. "So this year there will be a new round of hardware devices and they will have a browser built in to them" with smaller screens and less functionality than PCs .

"The term PC will probably be reserved for things you sit fairly close to and you can edit the information easily with a full screen," Gates added.


The soft PC
Eventually, computers will include "softer" software that can guide users by learning how they work, based on usage profiles and smart agent technology, he said. Enhanced software will also improve online collaboration, he added.

Bandwidth problems which have stifled performance increases are being solved, according to Gates, particularly with the emergence of cable modems and ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), which enables higher bandwidth applications over existing telephone lines.

During a question-and-answer period after his keynote, Gates said that next year Windows NT will become a full superset of Windows 95, and thus able to run all the same applications. He also predicted that within the next five to 10 years Internet access through satellite connection will be widely available.

Intel, IBM strike deal to lower PC ownership costs
In a related announcement, IBM and Intel Corp. said they will join together to tackle the rising costs of PC ownership in a networked environment. Through their Advanced Manageability Alliance, the two companies said they will design, develop, and comarket standards-based solutions intended to cut costs by simplifying installation and maintenance of PCs. Along with Sun's JavaStation roll-out and Microsoft's NetPC, the IBM-Intel undertaking shows a decided movement by industry leaders to tackle the high cost of owning and maintaining desktop PCs.

Market research firm International Data Corp. estimates the yearly ownership cost of a PC to be at least $8,000 a year. NC manufacturers say ownership costs for their devices are less than half that. In the first stage of the alliance, Intel will incorporate IBM's Wake On LAN remote management capabilities into its Fast Ethernet LAN adaptors and LANDesk Client Manager software. In turn, IBM will incorporate those Intel products into all future versions of its desktop PCs powered by Pentium and Pentium Pro processors beginning in the first quarter of 1997.

The two vendors will work to allow PCs to be controlled uniformly from both Intel's LANDesk Configuration Manager and IBM's LAN Control Client Manager. They will also integrate Tivoli Systems Inc.'s TME 10 enterprise consoles with Intel LANDesk management tools and IBM NetFinity tools for workgroups, according to the release.

In the future, the two companies plan to develop new PC management software, PC networking management hardware, and simpler-to-use desktop systems. While the initial products will be reflected in Intel's and IBM's product lines, the companies hope the solutions will be adopted as industry standards, according to the release.

--Elinor Mills and Kristi Essick, IDG News Service, and Bob Trott, Infoworld.

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