Return of the thin client

The pitch is hard to resist: No storage, no applications, no worries

Déjà vu alert! This week’s cover image -- a small, diskless “thin client” computer accompanied by the phrase “Meet Your Next Enterprise Desktop” -- may stir up long-dormant memories. It’s also sure to trigger the part of your brain that controls eye rolls and guffaws.

After all, people have been predicting that stripped-down, network-connected terminals would replace the desktop PC since back in the days when Spam was a dubious meat product and java was a good cuppa coffee. And of course, they were dead wrong. This time, however, the thin client movement appears to have real momentum.

A lot has changed since Larry Ellison introduced the concept of the network computer, or NC, in 1995. Back then, networks were unreliable and bandwidth was pinched, which made the NC largely impractical. Worse, mere mention of these minimal machines sent average users into paroxysms that would make Charlton Heston proud -- “You can take my PC off my desk when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” Faced with that kind of opposition, IT backed off.

So what’s different, circa 2005? Well, bandwidth is now ubiquitous and processors are brawnier, largely mitigating performance and compatibility issues. The real driver, though, is security or lack thereof. “Windows is Swiss cheese,” says Dan Tynan, author of our cover story (see “Think Thin”). “People are tired of patching individual computers; it’s cheaper and easier to defend a single server than a thousand desktops.” This is particularly relevant to IT, which often administers to satellite offices across the country or around the globe. In that kind of scenario, the thin client is a no-brainer.

But what about your typical desktop users, the ones whose open revolt scuttled the whole idea in the first place? There’s still a notion that if IT takes away your computer, you’re a lesser person or can’t be trusted -- a major stumbling block to adoption.

“But once people use a thin client, they realize they can do everything they used to do on a PC except load their own software -- and wait for someone to fix it when it breaks,” Tynan says. “I’m a one-man shop,” he adds. “Still I spend so much time dealing with viruses, spyware, spam, and everyday Windows headaches that I found myself thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I could use one of these.’ ”

Tynan may not be part of the corporate audience the thin client makers are targeting. But his response speaks volumes about people’s changing attitudes toward their PCs. In an always-connected world -- where e-mail is nonstop, the Web is a constant presence, and applications are routinely delivered through the browser -- the network is king.

The box perched on your desk is just the messenger. And maybe it’s time to shoot the messenger -- or at least, put it on a strict diet.

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