Many small companies need PCs for standard office applications and also need to access the Internet. Network computers, a new category of hardware, allow you to accomplish both tasks for less money than ever before-well under $1,000 per user.
Network computers differ from standard PCs in that they act as terminals to PC servers. All your applications, including Windows and Internet access, run on the server, which you connect to using the inexpensive network computer, which simply acts as a display.
In a way, this computing style is a throwback to the earlier days of computing, when a series of terminals ran off a mainframe computer. Dubbed "thin client" computing in computer industry jargon, this method is highly cost-effective for smaller businesses that may want to provide computers and Internet access to several users without spending a lot of money.
Network computers are also a money-saver if your company has telecommuters or employees, such as salespeople, who frequently work outside the office. In the past, to access computer data, such "remote workers" had to dial directly into the office's computer server over long-distance phone lines. With network computers, however, they can simply access the office by making a local phone call to an Internet service provider (ISP) and connecting to the server.
Network computers also require less daily service and support than traditional PCs. They have no hard drives and are much simpler to install. As a result, the cost of ownership is significantly lower than that of a traditional PC.
The disadvantages? Network computer systems won't provide the speed and power of a standard desktop PC. Individual users can't plug CD-ROM drives and other add-ons into their systems. And if the server goes down, the whole network goes down. Still, many small com-panies do very well with the capabilities these network computers offer.
One of the first companies to introduce network computers was Wyse Technology Inc. Its Wyse Winterm product line provides Internet access and Windows computing for prices ranging from $500 to $750 per unit. The line includes the Winterm Model 2300, 2000T, 2500T and 2700T. The "T" models come integrated with a 14- or 15-inch display monitor; the 2300 comes with a choice of monitors. Separately available software, WyseWork, which runs on a server, allows users to access Unix and mainframe applications (the starting price is $495 for five users).
HDS@workStation from HDS Network Systems is similar to the Winterm family of products, providing Internet access and Windows computing. However, this $699 network computer also comes standard with the ability to run Java applets and PC, Unix and mainframe applications, so if you currently use one of these programs, you don't have to purchase a new application to use the network system. And because the HDS@workStation supports a full suite of multimedia options (for an additional $600), you can use it to develop Web sites or perform Internet-based communications such as videoconferencing.
Although not a network computer, AST's new Bravo MS-T Pentium Pro-based product line might be just the thing you need if you're in the market for a new computer that also offers easy Internet access. These standard desktop systems, available for $2,300 to $3,715, come bundled with AST-IntraAccess software, a package that includes everything you need for Web browsing, Web site development, and data sharing via a company Intranet.