3. Thin clients
Era: Early 1990s to present
The pitch: "The financial case is clear: Thin-client computing can save 30 to 70 percent of your IT costs. Centralizing servers and server support staff leads directly to higher utilization levels. Simplified software deployment radically reduces rollout costs. Longer lifetimes of Windows-based terminals reduces capital expenditure. ... All the benefits of centralised servers and support staff are realized as are most of the benefits of powerful PCs on desks, including popular Windows applications." -- Newburn Consulting, March 2002
By distributing cheap data terminals throughout an enterprise and concentrating computing power at the network hub, thin-client systems were supposed to be easier and cheaper to maintain than a fleet of PCs -- all while being virtually free of malware and user-induced hiccups. In the mid- to late 1990s, they were promoted as a panacea for overtaxed IT departments looking to slash their total cost of ownership.
When you got up close, however, thin clients proved a bit chubbier than anyone realized, says analyst Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.
"The problem was that the servers that supported the platform weren't designed for the kind of massive I/O that the concept required, and network bandwidth wasn't up to the task, either," he says. "This made the conversion cost very high. For a solution whose primary benefit was economics, it was economically unattractive for most."
Worse, users resented giving up control over their machines, adds Mike Slavin, partner and managing director responsible for leading TPI's Innovation Center. "The technology underestimated the value users place upon having their own 'personal' computer, rather than a device analogous -- stretching to make a point here -- to the days of dumb terminals," he says.
As a result, thin clients had the biggest impact on factory floors, retail operations, call centers, and other environments where PCs did not already have a foothold.
These days thin clients are making a bit of a comeback, says Enderle, but not strictly for enterprises -- and not under the name "thin clients." "The technology is making its way into game systems, set-top boxes, connected TVs, and connected digital picture frames," he says. "Far from dead, it's undergoing a resurgence. But people are being careful not to call them 'thin clients' or even connect it to a PC experience."
The pitch: "Enterprise resource planning systems appear to be a dream come true. ... The latest generation of commercially available software packages promise seamless integration of all information flows -- financial and accounting, human resource, operations, supply chain, and customer information. This provides for a unified view of the business, encompassing all functions and departments by establishing a single enterprise-wide database in which all business transactions are entered, recorded, processed, monitored, and reported." -- Elizabeth and Michael Umble, Baylor University, January 2002
Ah, the promise of ERP. All your essential businesses processes wrapped up into a single package that everyone in the company -- from the boardroom to the mailroom -- can easily access. One enterprise app to rule them all.