As we approach the new millennium, it's ironic that computing has gone retro. Sure, computing devices are getting smaller and easier to use, and the Internet now connects all computing devices, large and small.
But as computing gets more sophisticated, it also gets more retro because we see more of the computing functions being pushed to centralised, shared Web servers. Whether it's called hosted applications or application services or Web computing or Web caches, it looks more like the time-sharing and centralised computing of the 1970s. But unlike bell-bottom jeans, this trend is here to stay.
Not that this is bad, though. It's just ironic that as we are about to enter the 21st century, there's a move to larger server functions. Many vendors are responding by creating microcomputer-based server clusters. There are more and more rack-mounted, multiprocessor computers with disk arrays and strong server management making an appearance.
Bill Gates explained this concept to his researchers as his vision of a "Megaserver". Although Microsoft has the challenge of convincing customers that Windows NT - oops, Windows 2000 - will be the key OS in these server clusters, the resurgence of Unix is meeting the call.
Beyond hardware, applications are beginning to emulate this thin-client and fat-server approach. As there is a transition from client/server to Web-oriented transactional applications, there will be huge server demand. Sure, bandwidth is the issue, but the advantage of an outsourced or managed server environment is gaining appeal.
And Oracle is leading this new charge. Although some would say Oracle failed at their network computer pitch, you have to give them credit; they did force PC manufacturers to deliver sub-$US1000, and now sub-$500 personal computers that no one dreamt was possible.
Without missing a beat, they have gone to stage two of their pitch - Web computing. Having heard both Larry Ellison and Ray Lane explain this concept, it is clear that this idea has strong appeal to corporate environments that are looking at how to squeeze the most out of their dated PCs.
But we are also seeing appeal in a number of midsize companies. Rather than housing their enterprise resource planning or human resources applications in-house, many are looking to application server providers to provide a Web view into their back-end systems. Or with providers such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, we are beginning to see new approaches to professional relationships.
Regardless of the approach, companies are able to alleviate the burden of support as well as dramatically reduce their start-up costs of making these significant application conversions. And it provides needed information to anyone involved with the organisation via a browser. Although not using a terminal per se, this sure looks like the time-sharing model of the '60s and '70s.
This model provides many advantages not available with terminals. Given the worldwide coverage of the Internet and the low cost of storage, we are seeing organisations providing Web caching.
By copying the static information to numerous sites around the world, these companies enable dynamic switching that allows your browser to grab the information from that site, which is available via the fastest possible route.
Today, Web-cache companies are offering to do the same with your corporate information. It will be only a matter of time before this same trend occurs with transactional capabilities - similar but improved from the single source of centralised computing, but still centralised computing.
But it is the usage of these retro trends that is allowing full functionality of thin-client computing. So as we see more devices in phones, cars, or handheld devices, they can enjoy more computing than their local processors would normally allow.
This will further drive computing out into the real world and help us achieve the full breadth of computing often dreamed about in many sci-fi stories of the 21st century.