Net computers to be tested in fed agencies

Several federal agencies have scheduled pilots to test the NC, or network computer, as
an alternative to the PC.


An Agriculture Department office in Denver is among those planning to try NCs,
simplified computers that can cruise the Internet and perform basic tasks by downloading
server-based applets instead of storing applications locally.


Late this month, Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office will
set up a prototype to tie together some of its geographically dispersed employees with
World Wide Web sites and links to on-line databases, according to Michael Buchko Jr.,
general manager of the Government Systems Group at the Santa Cruz Operation Inc., Santa
Cruz, Calif.


SCO, which is promoting its Unix-based NC/OS operating system as a slim-client
alternative to Microsoft Windows, has six prototypes scheduled during the next few months
at agencies that haven't upgraded their 286 and 386 PCs, he said.


Some vendors claim adoption of NCs could reduce the total cost of ownership for a
networked PC from about $13,000 to $2,500 per year.


This fall has seen a flurry of NC announcements. Sun has set a starting price of just
$742 for its JavaStation family of network computers, which run its JavaOS and Java
scripting language. Oracle Corp. this week introduced its own NC products, which will be
bundled with Netscape Communications Corp. browser software.


IBM Corp.'s IBM Network Station, which the company said will be ready soon, reportedly
is similar to Oracle's and Sun's NC designs.


Despite SCO's prototypes, however, the vast majority of government IT managers have no
NC plans. "It's vaporware," said Frank Hartel, alternate chief information
officer at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.


"What Microsoft is proposing [the NetPC] sounds like a cheap PC," Hartel
said. "What Oracle is pitching seems like a throwback to an X terminal, where the
data center guys control the world. That won't work well over here."


He conceded that Sun Microsystems Inc. might have more success, "because they seem
to be proposing a Java-enabled appliance." It will attract interest "if it's
easy to use and doesn't require a lot of horsepower," he said.


Some agencies will wait for the hype to subside to see what benefits the NC might bring
to their organizations. "We aren't even looking at it," said Kris Iskandar,
director of technical support for the Labor Department in Washington. "This is such a
new concept, we haven't even thought about it."


Agencies that already have invested heavily in client-server architectures may view the
NC as a retreat to the days of mainframes and dumb terminals. "I'm not going to go
back," said E.J. McFaul, a computer scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "We
depend on the network, and our reliance on local storage has become ingrained."


David Goldberg, deputy associate commissioner for IRM at the Immigration and
Naturalization Service in Washington, said, "Our environment starts out with the
desktop. We don't have a need for network computers that can't perform other
functions."


But a few federal workers were more enthusiastic about NCs. Lamont Easter, chief of the
information technology group at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, said an NC
"could work well for people who are line workers" and use only one or two
applications from a LAN or Internet server.


SCO's Buchko called the first quarter of 1997 a crucial period for government
acceptance of the NC. By March, he said, he expects the Defense Information Systems Agency
to announce that its Common Operating Environment for the Defense Department will embrace
the Java scripting language, SCO's NC/OS and Web-based technologies.


Meanwhile, Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have responded to the Oracle and Sun NCs by
announcing a low-end, Windows-based NetPC with a 100-MHz or faster Intel processor,
designed to reduce the cost of ownership. The two industry leaders have recruited about 70
PC manufacturers to support their initiative.



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