Just when you thought you’d seen the last of network computers‹that loudly heralded, low-cost computing alternative that many were predicting would be the perfect solution for schools still battling those hefty kid-to-computer ratios‹here comes IBM.

The network computer, aka “NetPC,” is a scaled-down machine that derives most of its power from a central server. With its rock-bottom price tag and sealed-case security features (no floppy disk drive), it was supposed to replace the PC in your classrooms. But then in December the price of full PCs hit the floor, and you could get a desktop that’s much more powerful for about the same price.

Sounding the death knell of the NetPC? Don’t bet on it.

Judith Winkley of IBM told eSchool News the company will soon reveal several major customers who bought between 30,000 and 40,000 of the stripped-down computers. None of these major buyers are schools, but Winkley said IBM views K-12 education as a viable audience for its NetPCs.

IBM Vice President Jim Gant also said the company expects to sell as many of the machines in the first quarter as it did in its fourth. That goes against the industry norm, when computers makers normally see holiday spending ebb into first-quarter declines.

“It’s a nice growth curve,” said Gant, adding that he expects it to continue.

NEC, Dell, Compaq, and Gateway all came sprinting out onto the network computer field earlier this year. Even so, network computers haven’t caught on like some predicted.

Some of the problems? Slow networks, security, a lack of standards among makers, and few of the Java-based applications that would really make working off a network (like the internet) a great idea.

IBM said it’s working on those problems. One solution will be to package Java-based e-Suite applications with some machines. Later this quarter IBM will address security fears by releasing technology that will allow users to access their networks using a “smart card” and password.

And in January, NetPC makers met to agree on standards that would increase operability between their machines.

The NBT (next big thing)?

IBM and the other network computer makers are counting on a small market niche to keep network computers alive. Many think schools will have a big place in that small niche.

The NetPC was supposed to be this year’s NBT (next big thing). In June, 12 major manufacturers claimed to be demonstrating prototype NetPCs or pledging to make the low-cost, sealed-case systems. Then the network-computer concept began to lose favor.

By November’s Comdex (a computer industry convention), several players had dropped out‹including IBM‹and many more were stalled in production.

Then, in December, PC prices went south. It was a happy Christmas for everyone.

When five major computer makers all introduced machines for under $1,000 at the year’s end, the standard machines became competitive with the NetPC market.

NetPC advocates haven’t given up, though. Those proponents argue that network computers still are ideal for schools, because slighter machines reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO). Network computers are supposed to reduce your TCO partly because their purchase prices are less than the prices of personal computers, but also because network computers can be administered and updated easily.

In a school network, NetPCs normally would be linked to a central server that takes care of almost all major management duties such as software upgrades and hardware troubleshooting ­ even from a server in another building. This unified computing management reduces maintenance and administration costs.

The network computer “truly gives the opportunity to lower the cost of an individual desktop,” said Winkley. “The IT staff physically can’t keep desktops running. Kids can deconstruct PCs real fast.”

Microsoft doesn’t buy it

“Hold on, there,” say NetPC competitors. Those opponents are led by Microsoft, whose Windows 95 operating software can’t be run on the little machines. Windows NT is Microsoft’s network software. Microsoft and other PC boosters claim the administration and maintenance costs of PCs are fully competitive with the long-term costs of NetPCs. And with new tools being developed, such as Microsoft’s Zero Administrative Windows (ZAW) and Novell’s Z.E.N.works (Zero Effort Network‹see Page 8), they add, you’ll soon be able to perform remote computer administration on PCs just as easily as you can on the scaled-down NetPCs.

Manufacturers of the NetPCs are hoping that network computing still will be attractive to schools, though, because of the equipment’s security and ease of use.

“Compared to keeping desktops up and making sure the software is current as well as the speed of being able to roll out applications‹the network computer is superior to anything you can do in PCs today,” said Winkely.

The NetPCs can be virtually closed down to unauthorized users, providing maximum security against the most expert teen-age hackers.

George Warren, a spokesman for Dell Computers, says NetPCs can be especially attractive for schools in at least two situations: One, in remote schools that lack sufficient support staff, and, two, as single-task workstations used for such things as research in school libraries, data entry in administrative offices, or for eMail and internet surfing in teachers’ lounges.

Still, nobody’s making grandiose promises about the future of NetPCs and schools anymore.

“We’ve seen this market burned on a number of occasions,” Warren said. Dell is taking a “conservative” approach to marketing its network computers to schools. “We’re giving [schools] compatibility and reliability and keeping the phone calls to support down to a minimum.”

Look before you leap

Stacy Hand, a product manager at Gateway 2000, echoes that circumspection. “We see a place for [NetPCs] in schools,” he said. “It’s not great for everything, but we feel that there is a specific market. You don’t have CD-ROMs or floppies, so you don’t have to worry about people loading inappropriate content onto your system.”

Gateway 2000 began offering a NetPC called the e1000N‹a sealed-case version of the slightly more flexible e1000‹for around $1,000 in mid-January.

Soon after the first-generation network computers were put on the market, GartnerGroup Inc., an information-technology research firm, issued a report advising customers against leaping too quickly onto the network computing bandwagon.

Today’s networks might not be ready to support a server-centric computing model, said the report, “Network Computing: The Rest of the Story.” You’ll need to make major investments in your infrastructure, Gartner warned, as well as increase‹not decrease‹your support staff.

That’s because a highly reliable network is imperative, the report explained. Working offline is nearly impossible with most first-generation NetPCs. In addition, the older wiring in some facilities probably won’t sustain the increased bandwidth necessary to support network computing, according to the report.

Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald & Associates, says the NetPC‹like any useful piece of equipment‹has a place in schools as long as educators aren’t being “short-changed.”

You have to be careful manufacturers or resellers don’t try to dump used or sub-standard equipment on your schools, said Grunwald. Another problem, Grunwald said, can be vendors who provide schools with a product line that is soon dropped. That happened with the Apple IIes, Grunwald said, and some schools were left with “orphaned machines.”

Some analysts think the potential of network computers increases when the machines are combined with a leasing program. After the lease has expired, you can turn in the old machines for newer, updated versions. Under such an arrangement, upgrades might become just a memory, because you’d always be working with the latest hardware.

The leasing option might be especially attractive for schools where constraints on annual budgets put technology out of reach but where funds are readily available for monthly expenses such as leased computers.

Several major hardware makers now offer leasing options and special hardware pricing for schools.

IBM

http://www.ibm.com

Dell Computers

http://www.dell.com

Gateway 2000

http://www.gateway.com

GartnerGroup

http://www.gartner.com