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Cover Story
PC or NetPC: What's the Difference?

-- by Lou Grinzo

Read Microsoft's NetPC reference profile, and you'll likely end up wondering just how these boxes differ from PCs. By stressing the minimum hardware requirements, plus some configurability issues, Microsoft has left quite a bit to the discretion of the PC vendors that will market NetPCs.

Will a NetPC have a serial, parallel or joystick port? Surprisingly, Microsoft has left this decision entirely to the hardware vendor. The reference profile also omits anything about a removable media disk drive, something many of us will want.

Another subtlety involves the NetPC's internal hard drive, which is "for caching." Surely a Pentium- and Windows-based box will allow you to install a local copy of Word for those times when the network is down, right? Surprise again. You'll never be able to install software on a NetPC.

Even more surprising is the lack of information concerning the issue of which operating system the NetPC will use, although it does require Plug-and-Play compatibility and that "device drivers and installation meet Windows and Windows NT specifications." You don't have to be clairvoyant to predict the NetPC will run a Windows variation complete with the all-critical Windows 32 Application Programming Interface (Win32 API)

Some parts of the reference profile flirt with quaintness, requiring only 256-color VGA-level video and a 100MHz Pentium or equivalent processor. At a time when you can hardly find a 100MHz Pentium anything, and non-Super VGA boards for desktop systems are a dim and fading memory, those are curiously humble requirements.

So what will the first wave of NetPCs look like? Hardware vendors will most likely be appropriately cautious and minimize the custom work needed to create their first NetPCs. This "parts bin" engineering is not a bad thing per se, but it will lead to minor oddities, such as NetPCs with those "optional" ports, or ports on the motherboard that aren't exposed through holes in the case. Expect to see a few models that are merely repackaged PCs running a special version of Windows. Also, display options and available screen resolutions might be severely limited, out of sheer caution.

Back to the Future

But once the NC/NetPC market proves itself viable and customers start clamoring for more features-virtual certainties by the end of 1997-hardware vendors will introduce a second wave of NetPCs custom designed and tuned to better meet the customers' needs. To no one's surprise, we'll once again be awash in options and complexity as vendors stretch the definition of NetPC to the breaking point in an effort to gain any and every competitive advantage possible. And in short order, the NetPC will metamorphose into a PC. Sounds like deją vu all over again.


Windows Magazine, April 1997, page 198.

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