NC may see bad news

Almost on cue, product promises from Intel's chip rivals have brought the entry price for a PC down to a new low. Given PC manufacturers' growing ambivalence to "Intel Inside", these announcements demonstrate the flexibility that still exists for the PC platform. And that could leave the network computer with little more than a niche.

I have discussed how even IBM and Sun Microsystems's new JavaOS for Business won't help the NCs to meet the initial product hype. I observed how the PC industry had nimbly addressed the threat from NCs. But I didn't foresee announcements from both Advanced Micro Devices and National Semiconductor that lay the groundwork for sub-$US500 full-featured PCs.

Both vendors have gotten to the same point but with different approaches. AMD CEO Jerry Sanders is taking the Crazy Eddie approach to pushing processors: "We can sell you this processor for at least 25 percent less than Intel."

Of course, having IBM and Compaq as customers has added weight to Sanders' promise. True, both vendors have some excess inventory, but they should overcome this forecasting error and continue to see strong years. But it isn't clear what AMD will do if Intel decides to continue dropping its prices as well. With Craig Barrett now calling the shots, it's anybody's guess as to what Intel has in store. Barrett could easily play the volume game, thus creating a nightmare for AMD.

National Semiconductor has taken a more innovative approach. Their "system on a chip" microprocessor integrates PCI, graphics and memory controllers, as well as communications, Universal Serial Bus and core logic into the microprocessor. Additional FireWire, DVD, Ethernet and MPEG support are all supposed to be waiting in the wings.

These processor advances and pricing cuts make it clear that we haven't seen the end of upstart innovation or hit the bottom of the pricing curve. However, as many have learned the hard way, the price of PC hardware is a fraction of the overall cost of the computer. But given this continuing hardware price trend, corporations should seriously invest in systems management for their PCs. In a well-managed environment, lower cost computers can be used to create a more dynamic desktop-computer environment.

Although this won't address the many traveling professionals who demand laptops, it will be an attractive offering for those who are now using terminals. Yes, there are still tens of millions of dumb tubes on desks in corporate land. Once seen as the natural ground for NCs, they could turn into low-cost PC territory if trends continue.

Given my recent challenges in this and the past few columns about the about the potential reach of NCs, some readers suggest that I must have recently drunk a glass of Bill Gates' grape Kool-Aid and given up on Java. Not so. I believe that Java will be here a long time, but as a programming language, not as a magical cross-platform elixir.

Although Java is the best programming language to emerge in the past decade, corporate adoption has still been sluggish. People want to use it, and they know they should use it, but they have no idea where to begin. To aid in this challenge, several readers have pointed me to a great and still growing resource for Java programming.

IBM's Java Web site (http://www.IBM.com/java) offers an excellent resource for Java developers. Core to this business-oriented site is jCentral, IBM's secret weapon for Java developers. This self-expanding catalogue for Java resources uses a Web crawler to search the Internet for source code, applets, JavaBeans, article and newsgroup references, and FAQs, allowing Java programmers to quickly search for the information they need.

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