Netbooks: the ultimate thin clients

Some people dismiss netbooks as personal playthings; others see them as potential desktop replacements. Could they be vehicles for desktop virtualization, too?

After a decade or so of talking about it, we're finally approaching a world where your applications and data are no longer tethered to the personal hardware you use. Today this is mainly confined to Web e-mail and a couple of other browser-based apps (and maybe remote access to your desktop PC at work via VPN). But I'm convinced that desktop virtualization is on the cusp of becoming the next big craze, and if the client hardware is more or less immaterial, why not use a cheap netbook?

The argument for desktop virtualization is basically this: What you spend on back-end servers to maintain end-user desktops is made up for by a lower total cost of ownership, 24/7 employee access to desktop work environments, and low desktop horsepower requirements. Not to mention that all user data stays in the datacenter where it can be secured. There are still hurdles -- applying desktop management to the server side is a new and evolving area, for example -- but I have little doubt that they will be overcome.

[ Check out Business netbooks: IT revolution or contradiction in terms? for a review of four netbooks by InfoWorld contributor Randall Kennedy. ]

So why netbooks? Well, not only are they the cheapest, lowest-power-consuming PCs you can buy, but they're also the smallest devices with which you can get heads-down productive work done on the road. Back at your desk you can plug one into a $150 LCD and a full-size keyboard. These days it's hard to find Linux netbooks anymore -- but who cares if all you can get is XP Home or Vista preinstalled? Go ahead, use Home as your terminal OS. Remember, the client OS is completely isolated from the virtual desktop.

To me, netbooks are just coincidentally good candidates for thin clients, in part because they're selling better than any other personal computer in this crummy economy. Worried about what happens when a $300 piece of "plastic junk" breaks? No problem: Hand the user another netbook and work resumes without disruption. Ultimately, the greatest cost savings may be that you escape the hardware upgrade treadmill. New OS versions and fatter desktop apps may require a server upgrade, but the requirements for clients remain constant.

Client hardware aside, those who doubt the economies of scale offered by desktop virtualization should take note of the announcement IBM made last week. This year, IBM will offer a new Smart Business Desktop Cloud service, where IBM will maintain virtual desktop images accessible by customers via thin client. And yes, we're talking about Windows and Office desktops (although you can opt for Lotus stuff if you want).

If investing in desktop virtualization still seems prohibitive, consider this: Some companies, including Google and BP, have explored the idea of enabling users to choose and maintain their own PCs. With desktop virtualization in place, employees could actually own (or co-own) their own netbooks in the same way people own mobile devices that access company e-mail.

The ramp-up to widespread desktop virtualization will take a few years, by which time netbooks may no longer be hot. But by then, who knows? Maybe you'll be able to buy smartphones with little video and keyboard ports.

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