NEW YORK — In a development that may someday shake up personal computer design, Sun Microsystems Inc. and other companies are trying to create machines that would sell for just a few hundred dollars and be able to access the Internet and other networks, Sun's top executive said Monday.
Such a computer would be little more than a microprocessor and a few other chips, keyboard, screen and a communications connection, but it would be able to access and manipulate sophisticated programs and data on other computers.
A programming language Sun recently developed called Java allows software creators to make products that can easily be sent across a network, whether it's a telephone line, a cable system or wireless.
For instance, a person would not need a personal finance program in his or her home computer to interact with a bank. The portion of the program the user needs would download upon request from the bank and vanish when the work was done.
With less need for hard drives, floppy disks and CD-ROMs, a computer could be streamlined and produced for less money. That would be important for people unable to afford today's desktop PCs, whose prices start at about $1,000.
It may take several years for such machines to reach stores. So far, some companies have created prototypes, said Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman and chief executive.
"People are way ahead of us already," he said. "I have already seen [from other companies] designs of Java terminals."
He declined to identify those companies or specify their relationships to Sun.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company will probably produce such machines, McNealy said. Sun is now a $6.5-billion designer of advanced workstations, microprocessors and system software.
McNealy said the ability to connect to networks and manipulate Java-based programs could also be added to video game machines and other consumer electronics devices at little cost.
Sun is talking to several electronics makers about such integration, McNealy said, but he would not be more specific.
Such moves support Sun's view that networks rather than individual computers are becoming more important as the source of data and programs. The idea requires that people rethink the way they use software--that is, borrowing it from some other computer rather than installing it permanently in a machine.
"If well done, it might have some merits," said David Tremblay, analyst at CI-Infocorp. "But people are used to buying a program one time and having it be there whenever they need. This is making a fundamental change in the way that people are looking at software."
The idea's success depends on phone, cable and other data lines' being improved to carry more signals. Sun has promoted investment in better lines in the United States and overseas, where governments often control a nation's communications system, McNealy said.
Since its introduction last spring, Java has risen to prominence because of the way it can be used with the World Wide Web portion of the Internet.
The Web has become popular because it provides a simple way to get information--whether text, graphics, sound or other media--on computers that may be thousands of miles apart.
With Java, there can be more action on the Web than just moving among static pages of information. For example, someone looking over mutual fund information on a brokerage's Web site could download a program that would allow the calculation of an investment.
Sun has received more interest in this product than any in its 13-year history, McNealy said. When word spread that the company was inviting programmers to a Java seminar in New York last week, Sun had to turn away more than 1,000 people who wanted to come.
"In terms of interest per advertising dollar spent, this might be a new record," McNealy said.
"We haven't run a Java ad yet. We haven't rented the Stones," he said, referring to Microsoft Corp.'s use of rock group the Rolling Stones as part of its $200-million marketing effort for Windows 95.