Sun Starts A Buzz

But is it brewing big success with its "network computer?"

Sun Microsystems Inc. is about to give rivals the jitters. On Oct. 29, it plans to unveil JavaStation, a major new entry in the race to develop "network computers," a new concept touted since last year by Oracle Corp. Sun's new machine, aimed at corporate buyers, is a stripped-down computer aimed at making some jobs as easy as--well, using a coffeemaker. Says Edward J. Zander, president of Sun's hardware unit: "JavaStations are an enormous opportunity to do an end-run around the PC."

JavaStation's big departure from "Wintel" PCs, based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software and Intel Corp.'s chips, is that it draws programs and data from corporate networks instead of an internal disk drive. As a result, programs can be updated instantly, and the machine itself can be simple (table). Target markets include hotel reservation systems, bank teller networks, customer service desks, and other applications for which terminals or low-end PCs now are used.

Early indications are that JavaStation will do well. Its appeal isn't just its low price--under $1,000. Corporate buyers like the promise of much lower costs for support, software, and training. Pete Kelly, a senior vice-president at First Union Corp.'s capital markets group, based in Charlotte, N.C., expects JavaStation support to cost 50% less than PC support, which runs at least $8,000 a year. That's one reason FTD Inc. plans to buy at least 17,000 JavaStations for member florists over the next few years. Says William P. Phelan, FTD's vice-president for technology: "This will be a very big movement in computing."

Still, it's far from certain that Sun is brewing up a major success. For now, JavaStations run only programs using Sun's Java programming language, which are few and largely untested. And the PC is far more versatile for people who need to do several kinds of jobs, such as spreadsheets and presentations. Meanwhile, Sun is about to face heavy new competition from companies ranging from IBM to Hitachi to terminal makers such as Wyse Technology Inc. and Boundless Technologies Inc. All are jumping in with network computers. Sun's hope: that its machine will outclass them all--something akin to selling the best coffeemaker in the world.

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