HP gets serious about thin-client PCs

Hewlett-Packard will take aim at what it sees as a booming thin-client market next week when the company announces a new family of thin-client computers along with a new brand name, an HP official said last week.

"This is another sign that we know this is a multi-billion dollar market," and one that HP intends to capitalise on, said Brent Remai, product manager for HP's thin-client division.

HP launched its first family of thin-clients, the Net Vectra, early last year. The company outsourced the Net Vectra's design and manufacture to hardware maker Wyse Technology. The new family, called Entria, includes the first thin-client computers designed and manufactured by HP itself, Remai said.

HP plans to make the announcement Monday, with the computers scheduled for availability later this year, he said.

Thin-client computers typically don't include a hard drive and have less memory and processing power than desktop PCs. They access applications that are hosted on a central server, from which they also derive much of their processing power. The systems are designed to help companies reduce the cost of deploying and maintaining computers.

HP hopes its Entria family will put it at the forefront of what some analysts see as a booming market. Market research firm International Data Corp has predicted that the worldwide market for thin clients will expand from about 600,000 shipments in the current year to 6 million units by 2002, according to HP.

HP will offer three Entria product lines. The G series uses an embedded version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and is designed to access Windows applications running on Windows NT, Terminal Server Edition and Citrix Systems' Metaframe software.

The L and X series use an embedded Linux core, and include Netscape Navigator for browser-based access to Java programs as well as access to Windows applications, HP's Remai said. The X series also includes HP's ChaiVM embedded Java virtual machine, providing access to applications hosted on Unix and legacy servers, he added.

"The L and the X become server-agnostic. You can drop them in a network in five minutes and they can go off to a multitude of hosts and access a range of applications," Remai said.

The L and the X series will be manufactured by HP, while Wyse's services will be retained to make the G series. The Net Vectra brand will be killed off when the Entrias are released, along with two of the three thin-clients that comprise the current Net Vectra line-up, according to Remai. The third Net Vectra will morph into an Entria to become part of the G series, he said.

Pricing won't be announced next week, although Remai said the G series will likely be priced between $US500 and $600, while the L series will be priced under $700. The thin clients will be compatible with HP's OpenView and TopTools systems management software.

The PC industry dreamed up the thin-client concept a few years ago, mostly in response to the network computer craze first ignited by Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison and later taken up by Sun Microsystems. Network computers never took off as expected, partly because PC prices fell, but also because PC makers countered with the thin-client initiative which they say offers comparable cost savings.

HP isn't worried that selling low-cost thin-client computers will cannibalise sales of its higher-priced Brio business PCs, according to Remai. The two types of systems address different needs, and HP views them as complementary, he said.

Thin-client use is being driven by their ability to help lower ownership costs, and by the advent of application service providers (ASPs), HP said in a statement issued last week. ASPs provide an outsourcing service by hosting applications for companies, and therefore work well with thin-clients or network computers.

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