The difference between the Sun River "Boundless" network access computer and something like the NChannel net surfer machine appears to be that while NChannel's machine looks like a TV, Boundless looks like a PC running Windows. Will it run Lotus Notes? "Good question. We'll find out."
Boundless is not just a dumb terminal. It's "designed to appeal to corporate management," according to sales vice president John Osborne at Sun River. But it provides a user-friendly interface; that is to say, it runs Windows.
Independent market research suggests that such super-terminals share many of the known drawbacks of "diskless PCs" which were sold to unwary corporate buyers in the past. Osborne rejects suggestions that his NC is just another niche player. "We see much steeper growth than that," he insists. "I wouldn't be in this market if I thought it were just a niche market."
Encouragement for his viewpoint, he says, comes from corporate MIS buyers and managers, who feel that most of the Pentium machines they see on desks are running screen savers. "There's all that power, wasted," he said. His Boundless NC, by contrast, uses an Intel i960 processor to drive display and network, and runs the applications on a central server.
"It is possible to have the personality of the NC held in Flash RAM," he said, "and in that case, it will boot without a network. But otherwise, we run the Winframe software on a server, which gives each user access to an NT or Windows 95 desktop with their own CONFIG and initialisation files, but sharing all the executable code centrally. In that case, it is dead until the server is running."
The saving achievable by buying a Boundless NC appears to be small; in a market where a powerful Windows 95 PC can be bought for under £800, street price of the mid-range Excel box in Europe is predicted to be "around $700" -- probably £500 or more -- which does not include a display. "There will be a lot of displays already available from previous PC technology workstations," predicts Osborne. "But the real gain isn't in the money saved against a PC, it's the control it gives the MIS department."
History might suggest that MIS departments are an unreliable source of market intelligence, however. Typically, previous "dumb terminal" solutions have appealed strongly to central IT management because they prevent local users installing troublesome software. Unfortunately, the point of personal computers in most corporations is their personal nature; individuals can enable themselves with IT when the MIS department is over-worked and unable to install resources.
"We're taking the 'P' out of 'PC' definitely," says Osborne. "Our customers want corporate access, not personal computing."
But in the past, products aimed at meeting this requirement have proliferated only in marketing presentations. In the real world, MIS departments are all in favour of being "in control" of IT -- until it turns out that being in control involves doing extra work requiring more expert staff to develop applications to user deadlines. At that point, traditionally, products like SQL, for all their superiority, have failed to prevent the rise of do-it-yourself database development, starting with dBase II and continuing all the way down to Approach and Access and Sybase.
In the case of the Boundless NC, Osborne believes that the fact that these things run Windows gets around that problem. But there are questions which he couldn't answer, and they mostly centred around groupware. Will the NC run Notes? How do you create a database? Who has control? Can you share files with other users (no, not without the intervention of the supervisor) or read CD data (no, not with the current version of the software) or create workgroups?
To too many of these points, the Sun River response was "Good question", which, in the age of groupware, may not be a good answer.
Sun River can be contacted by telephone on 00 31 345 565656.