Sun Microsystems Releases JavaPC Engine

At the pool or the beach, most people fall into one of two categories: those who like to dip their toes in the water first, and those who jump right in. Sun Microsystems Inc. has released a software package that seems ideal for IS managers who bring a toe-dipping mentality to new technology as well. The JavaPC Engine is designed to allow companies to try out network computing using their existing PC hardware.

JavaPC is based on the JavaOS software that powers network computers. It uses DOS device drivers to interact with PC peripherals, although floppy drives and CD-ROMs are not currently supported. The software includes network classes, windows and graphics systems, and a Java Virtual Machine, enabling users to run applications that comply with version 1.1 of the Java Development Kit. As a result, JavaPCs can run many of the same applications as network computers, including terminal emulators and Java-enabled clients.

Sun is targeting the JavaPC at large companies that have substantial numbers of older PCs still in operation. "We are allowing those companies that also have to invest in fixing their year 2000-compliance problem to have a solution that is available today that works with their current PC hardware," says Nicolas Lorain, Sun’s product manager for the JavaPC.

Lorain says network computer adoption has been hindered because companies have to buy or at least borrow new equipment to try it out. "We see the JavaPC software as a way for people to get more familiar with network computing," he says. "It doesn’t force them to switch right away to a network computing architecture."

While the JavaPC seems like a reasonable alternative for companies who don’t want to rush out and buy network computers or new PCs, Boston-based Yankee Group analyst Brian Murphy says he doubts whether the software will become mainstream. "This is really a variation on network computers. This represents sort of the middle ground. I think they will sell some of this stuff ... [but] I do have some reservations about how pervasive this will become," he says.

It might seem that this product is intended to compete with Windows Terminal Server, but Sun's Lorain says there’s an easy way for companies to decide which solution they should adopt: Windows terminals for running Windows programs, JavaPCs or network computers for running Java programs. Yankee Group's Murphy agrees that the JavaPC will most likely attract loyal Sun customers.

Although Sun has been working on JavaPC for more than a year, the company ran into last minute snags that forced it to release the Engine instead of the full version, which will include Internet browsing and enhanced user interface capabilities. The full version will be available by the end of the year.