With the focus likely to shift from the cost of buying the machines to the cost of maintaining them, marketers will be better able to differentiate brands that have been largely viewed as commodities.
A marketing battle begins this week when Oracle Corp. formally launches its Network Computer, a brand and list of tech specs the big software marketer is licensing to business computermakers and consumer brand marketers such as Thomson Consumer Electronics.
The PC establishment last week tried to head off the NC threat by formally unveiling Network PC, a version of a standard PC aimed at business.
NC LINKS TO REMOTE COMPUTER
An NC machine, starting at less than $1,000, plugs into the brains and software of a remote computer, a scheme hyped as making it cheaper for companies to maintain computer networks.
A Network PC costs more than $1,000, and is a mini-PC powered by Microsoft Corp. software and an Intel Corp. chip but lacking a floppy disk or CD-ROM. The marketing pitch to computer departments is that they can monitor and maintain the PC from afar.
But NC's broad marketing appeal so far is unproven, while Network PC shows signs of being little more than a stop-gap product.
Yet both open a marketing opportunity that over time could shift business PC advertising from its longtime focus on price to what is a bigger financial issue for customers: the "total cost of ownership"-purchase price plus the far bigger cost of maintenance.
"There's a new way to spin the price story," said Rob Wait, worldwide product marketing manager for commercial desktop in Hewlett-Packard Co.'s computing division.
In the short term, marketers could end up bewildering prospects with conflicting claims about NCs and Network PCs.
"There is some confusion here," said Ron Peck, Intel's director of Net Client Marketing.
Oracle will try to clarify its position with an NC brand campaign this fall from Think West, Los Angeles.
IBM Corp. has a rival product, the Network Station, that it calls an NC. IBM, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Apple Computer and Netscape Communications Corp. last year agreed on a basic NC standard, but not all the products bearing that name will be wholly compatible with Oracle's version. IBM is unique in pushing both an NC and a version of the Network PC.
The Network PC could end up having a short lifespan, partly because Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard will market their versions using existing business PC brands rather than the Network PC tag.
Software soon will allow companies to manage regular PCs as easily as Network PCs. So regardless of what the products are called, the marketing shift to management of PCs should continue.