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Network Innovations Unveiled at Expo

June 23, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

While one segment of the computer industry gathered in Atlanta last week to view the latest in software and electronic gadgets for home entertainment, a somewhat more subdued crowd prowled the halls of New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to look at the latest developments for the business market.

PC Expo, now in its 15th year, attracted an estimated 140,000 people during three days of exhibits, second only to the giant Comdex trade show held each November in Las Vegas. Conference session titles like "Total Cost of Ownership," "The Drive to Network Computing" and "Business Application Development in the Age of the Internet" hint of the corporate as companies strive to integrate Internet technology into their existing computing infrastructure.

Several PC companies, led by Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., used PC Expo to introduce the first NetPCs, a new category of business computers designed to simplify the management of PCs attached to corporate networks. Unlike the network computers being promoted by Oracle, Sun, IBM and others, NetPCs are basically IBM-compatible computers with Intel Pentium chips and hard drives that run standard Windows NT and Windows 95 applications.

But they generally lack floppy disk drives and internal expansion slots. Unlike regular machines, which allow individual users to load software via floppy disks or CD-ROMs, NetPCs are designed to be managed by network administrators who can add or modify software, fix configuration problems and monitor usage from a central location. I watched as an Intel technician punched in a command from her console to "wake up" several dormant NetPCs so she could take remote control and upload software.

Aside from being smaller and a bit less expensive than regular PCs, these machines are being promoted as more reliable because the network administrator--rather than the user--has control over system configurations. A user who experiences a glitch can call up the system administrator, who can attempt to fix the problem without having to come to the person's office and physically touch the machine. Or the machine might issue its own call for help, triggering an automatic fix from a central server.

The user has less control because there is no CD or floppy disk drive for loading new software or data files. That, in theory, should reduce viruses, unauthorized software and user-induced errors. Network administrators will be able to conduct search and destroy raids to ferret out any unauthorized software and reconfigure the machines so that they're strictly for business. So much for fun and games at the office.

There was plenty of discussion about the Java language from Sun Microsystems, which makes it possible for developers to create small "object-oriented" programs that can run over the Internet or on networked PCs. I didn't see many Java applications, but Lotus Development Corp. used the event to launch BeanMachine, an easy-to-use program that lets non-programmers create multimedia Java applications by combining individual elements, called Java Beans, into a single program. Several such beans are included with the program.

Speaking of language, you and your computer can now communicate via the spoken word. Both IBM and Dragon Systems released new speech-recognition software at PC Expo. This type of software has been around for years, but Dragon's Naturally Speaking Continuous Speech Recognition software is a breakthrough because it allows you to dictate to your PC at a normal speaking speed. Previous programs used discrete recognition, which requires you to pause for a second or so between each word.

Dictating without pausing is not only much faster, but also more relaxing and natural. The software is priced at $699, but will be available for $299 through the end of June. The software could be a boon for people with hand or wrist pain as well as those who are just typing-challenged.

In the meantime, IBM started shipping Simply Speaking Gold, a $99 discrete speech recognition program that lets you slowly dictate text and Windows commands. Unlike Dragon's product, it lets you dictate directly to standard applications, including Microsoft Word. The program comes with a version of Netscape Navigator that lets you use your voice, instead of your hands, to surf the Web.

The new IBM product also has text-to-speech capabilities, so it can speak as well as listen. This makes it possible for users, including the blind and those engaged in tasks like surgery or driving, to interact with a computer without using their hands or eyes. IBM plans to release a continuous-speech product by the end of the summer. Both companies include a noise-canceling headset microphone that plugs into a standard PC sound card.


Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at His World Wide Web page is at

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