March 24, 1997 1:15 PM ET
Digital tosses hat into the network computer arena
By Lisa DiCarlo

  Judging by the torrid pace of NC reference design introductions, the number of implementations could reach double digits by year's end.

Digital Equipment Corp. and Network Computer Inc. today announced the Digital Network Appliance Reference Design, the fifth such initiative since the network computer craze hit in 1995.

Proponents of so-called thin clients say their approach will lower the overall cost and complexity of personal computing.

Oracle Corp. and partners started everything off last year with the introduction of the first NC reference profile. Never one to bask in the shadows, Microsoft Corp. followed up with the Wintel-based NetPC. Acorn Computer Group plc. and Cirrus Logic Inc. have another design in the works, and National Semiconductor Corp. got on board in November with the Odin Reference Profile, based on National's processors.

While the number of designs and reference profiles may seem like a positive step to propel the platform, analysts have said the moves may have the reverse affect on IS managers weeding through a myriad of options.

``There's a lot of groping going on,'' said Richard Zwetchkenbaum, analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.

Digital officials in Maynard, Mass., reject the saturation criticism and predict a shakeout of designs.

"There will be a brief fan out of competitive designs, [but] this is a cookie cutter way of building a system quickly,'' said Robert Supnik, vice president of R&D; at Digital. "People interested in entering the [NC] business can do so quickly and at very low cost."

The Digital/NCI design is based on a 233MHz StrongARM 110 processor and NCI's forthcoming suite of NC software, called NC Access, officials said.

NC Access, which will be formally announced at Oracle's OpenWorld conference in Tokyo next month, includes Java-based E-mail, scheduling, news service and multimedia capabilities.

Other features of the design include up to 64MB of RAM, OEM customizable expansion slots, a smart card reader, a removable media port and support for various network connections.

The reference design will be available on Digital's Web site for free download next week to OEMs interested in building NCs.

Funai Electric Co. Ltd., of Japan, and Aranex Inc., of Bedford, Mass., will build NCs based on the specification, said Supnik. He said a dozen other OEMs are in negotiations with Digital to build NCs around the design.

Digital is at

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