To promote NCs, Apple, IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems developed the NC Reference Profile, a set of standards and guidelines that form the basis of the NC. On the hardware side, NC support requirements include audio output, at least 640 x 480 VGA resolution, and Internet Protocol (IP) network connections. As for software, an NC must support Java, communicate over the network via IP, run a Web browser, and recognize certain multi-media and other basic file formats. (At press time, a second version of the software reference profile was expected to be released soon.)
What's most noticeable about NCs is their diminutive size--they're roughly the shape of a paperback book. Most NCs come with standard keyboards and mice; monitors are usually purchased separately. Don't expect to be impressed with their fancy hardware: Many boast only 1MB to 4MB RAM and, as a general rule, possess relatively low-speed processors. So what's to love about this shell of a computer? NCs typically range in price from $800 to $1,200, and some NCs can be found for even less.
Unlike PCs, NCs rely entirely on a network server. Applications and data are stored on the server rather than on users' hard drives, and programs are designed to be compiled only as needed. Rather than taking up hard drive space with a rarely used software application, employees simply download the appropriate software to their machines when needed. Because Java support is one of the key components of the NC, users would ideally download Java applets (small task-based applications like a word processing program) from a Web site or corporate intranet to their NCs. However, because few Java programs are available, many of today's NCs run Windows applications on a Windows NT server loaded with software such as Citrix's WinFrame or Insignia Solutions' NTrigue, which are both widely used for terminal access to Windows applications.
IBM has established itself as a major player in the NC arena. Its primary offering is the IBM Network Station ($695, monitor not included). Base models come with PowerPC processors; 8MB RAM (expandable to 64MB), which simply holds files and data currently in use; 1MB of video memory, a keyboard and a mouse.
Wyse Technology, a longtime maker of Windows terminals (essentially scaled-down PCs without hard-drives), offers several solutions through its Winterm 2000 line, although they're not exactly NCs by the consortium's definition. Unlike other vendors, the Winterm line provides built-in support for the Citrix Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol, which is designed to optimize Windows applications. Wyse's Winterm 2300SE ($675, monitor not included) comes stocked with a 486 processor, 1.5MB flash RAM, 1MB of video memory, a mouse and a keyboard. While the Winterm 2000 series is a solution for running Windows applications, Wyse also offers the Winterm 4000 series of NCs that supports Java applications as well as Windows. The Winterm 4300, for example, (starting at $699, moniter not included) features a 220 MHz processor, 8MB or 16MB RAM, graphics and audio support, a mouse and a keyboard.