Thin clients unbound, will rebound, then abound

Thin clients unbound, will rebound, then abound

Some people insist on seeing everything in life as a good-versus-evil fight - with heroes and villains squaring off against one another in epic battles. From such battles emerge clear winners and losers. The morals and lessons that often accompany the victors and vanquished are a nice perk for fans watching the fight.

My 10-year-old son falls squarely into this camp. He loves certain Japanese animation because it paints the world in stark moral black-and-white, and he tries hard to see life through the same sort of monochromatic filter. But he's gradually beginning to understand that the world gets complicated when it's rendered in countless shades of grey - and that those shades of grey are where life becomes most interesting.

A year or so ago, lots of people were casting thin clients and PCs as the good and evil forces in a battle for the enterprise desktop. It was a great story, and it has kept folks like me busy generating ink. God bless it. But I never thought that thin clients would displace millions of PCs. I did think, however, that thin clients would be a great possibility for updating all of those VT-100-era terminals still greenly glowing on desktops and countertops. But the PC has simply become too cheap to be displaced in a wholesale fashion. With all of that said, I'm becoming more and more convinced that thin clients are going to be bigger than anyone has imagined.

How do I reconcile the apparent contra- dictions in the last two paragraphs? Merely by leaving the desktop behind. In the last few months I've seen more activity in ultraportable devices than I've seen in the 10 years prior.

In the palm of your hand

I've written about devices like the PalmPilot before (and I'm sure I will again), but I'm starting to see all sorts of product development activity that doesn't depend on the form factor that this successful platform made so popular. It's in these small platforms, sitting in the palm of your hand or hanging from your belt, that the thin-client concept becomes such a huge winner.

Take pagers as an example. I've been a fan for years - an alphanumeric pager with nationwide coverage is an important tool for the way I work. Yet lately I've seen several devices that make me think that my trusty Motorola Flex Gold unit will be heading back when the current contract is up.

Two-way-pager technology is improving rapidly, and vendors are starting to settle on the Web-browser metaphor for an interface to the tiny devices. It's unlikely that in the future people will casually cruise the Web via their pagers, but I've already seen prototype applications that let technical-support staff fix problems when they're alerted by pager.

A technology that enables expensive staff to solve problems faster, with less cost and fewer late-night blows to morale, is obviously a powerful tool.

Other prototype devices now available use Windows CE in form factors that look nothing like the palmtop or handheld units that are currently on the market. When vendors continue to expand their ideas of what very portable systems can look like, they will also figure out that the thin-client model works beautifully.

I look for companies like Citrix Systems to be players, because they've already figured out how to make thin clients happen with thin data pipes. But there will be market hare to go around for other companies that jump in soon.

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