Configuring and maintaining PCs is a pain in the assets. Industry analysts estimate that you spend more than $10,000 per year to maintain the PC you bought for $2500. In the old days, I could set up a 5250 terminal on my AS/400, turn it on, and forget about it for years.

So why did we switch to PCs? Because our enterprise systems couldn't deliver the same functionality that our end users could get at home. PCs handled word processing and spreadsheets better than dumb terminals. In IS, the customer is king, and the end users demanded PCs. But do business desktop users really need them? Can you run your office automation applications from a terminal?

If you conclude that you can, three architectures will clamor for your attention: Network Computers (NCs), X/Intelligent Console Architecture (ICA) terminals, and NetPCs. Sun Microsystems NCs can run Web-based and Java applications from an attached network. These systems cost between $500 and $900 and have an estimated $2500 annual cost of ownership. On the positive side, NCs let you set up a very low-cost client machine to run Java applications. On the negative side, you can't run Word, Excel, or any other Windows NT workstation application. So if you have or will have users who run only Java applications, NCs are just the ticket.

Last October, in "Think Thin and Win with Intelligent Console Architecture," John Enck wrote about the rebirth of the X-terminal market to run NT applications from an NT server. With these systems, an NT workstation application runs on a NT-based application server platform such as Citrix WinFrame. The terminal uses ICA or X as the protocol to display the application on the terminal. You can run any NT or X-Windows application. However, you need a very large NT Server box--one processor and 128MB of RAM for every 10 users.

Microsoft and Intel's NetPC is a low-cost, non-expandable PC that can run NT. It contains a Pentium 100MHz or higher processor, at least 16MB of RAM, an internal hard disk for caching, a connectivity device (Ethernet, 28.8 modem, ISDN, etc.), plug-and-play support, and audio capability--everything you need to run an NT application or to interact with the Internet or an intranet. The key to this NetPC is the new Zero Administration Initiative, which promises to make life easier for administrators by centralizing control of the clients at the server level. The combination of changes in the NT OS and Intel's Open Instrumentation technology aims to reduce the total cost of ownership by at least 50 percent. No shipment date or price has been set, but my guess is that NetPCs for NT will be available in the NT 5.0 timeframe, fall 1997.

Will This Idea Work?
Will users live with decreased desktop functionality? Some vendors estimate that from 20 to 30 percent of business desktops will be these new thin clients. In our Windows NT Magazine organization, we classify our users as data entry, IS administration, developers, office automation, decision support, mobile, and remote. If our order-entry application were written in Java, our data entry users would be good candidates for NCs. The rest of our users need Windows-based applications. Our office-automation and remote users are good candidates for NetPCs or X/ICA, and this group represents about 50 percent of our organization. The rest of the company needs PCs.

Who Will Win?
The only viable solution today is the X/ICA products available from Wyse Technology, Tektronix, NCD, Insignia, and Exodus. They offer a low-cost desktop that can run Windows, X, Java, and more.

NetPCs will quickly take over as the market leader if they can deliver on several key promises: These machines must be as easy to configure and maintain as dumb terminals and have the power of a PC. Not an easy task. So far, at least 84 Intel partners have announced support for the NetPC. No specification yet exists for PowerPC or Alpha-based NetPCs.

At this point, the NC is a niche player but could quickly gain momentum as the number of Java applications increases. Imagine industry reaction if Microsoft completely rewrote Office 97 in Java. Until then, NCs are unlikely to compel companies to dump their client operating systems.