Much to the chagrin of PC proponents, the thin-client movement appears to be picking up steam, with a rash of recent moves signalling the next step in the evolution of server-centric computing.
Sun Microsystems will release its second attempt at a Java-based thin-client device this week, the first being the ill-fated JavaStation.
The device comes on the heels of last week's announcement that Sun's newly acquired StarOffice and StarPortal office productivity software will be available for free download as well as for use over the Web.
As a counter punch, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer last week promised a forthcoming Web-based version of Microsoft's Office 2000 suite. And Citrix Systems will unveil a version of its MetaFrame product used in multi-user Windows environments specifically for ASPs (application service providers) at its iForum users conference in Orlando, Florida. Also at the Citrix conference will be announcements of new thin-client offerings from both Compaq Computer and IBM.
IBM is introducing the Network Station 2200 and 2800, both high-end solutions available for less than $US800. It is Compaq's first foray into the world of thin-client hardware.
One analyst said the trend towards ASPs and emerging software pricing models are contributing to the second wave for thin clients.
"The thin-client market is getting fatter," says Eileen O'Brien, an analyst at International Data Corporation. "The market is definitely picking up, partly because it's been a while and it's a little more proven. Some of the confusion is getting cleared up."
Unisys will debut its new Thin-telligent Windows NT servers at the Citrix show. George Koncikowski, worldwide program director for thin-client computing at Unisys, says that the Thin-telligent servers, maximised for use in centralised IT environments, is only the tip of the iceberg, as Unisys is also working on new technologies designed to speed up the performance in thin-client environments.
Many IT managers, always cautious with technologies that require fundamental network changes, are still sceptical.
"My opinion hasn't really changed that much," said Eric Kuzmack, lead IT analyst at Gannett Publishing, in Maryland. "But does it make sense to buy a PC alternative when I could run Citrix on that $300 PC and use it as a thin client? Plus, with a thin client, I need a fat network."
Even the pioneers of this business are somewhat conservative in their assessment of thin-client success.
"A lot of vendors say, 'the answer is the thin-client, what's the question?'" said Howie Hunger, director of channels and marketing, for the Network Computer Division at IBM, which also has a formidable PC business. "We never subscribed to the crusade that says 'let's get rid of PCs.' Thin clients will never displace all the PCs out there."