Mobile Workers Never Looked So Thin

Wireless thin clients can provide access to enterprise data from remote locations and have several advantages over laptop computers. Is there a revolution coming?
Building inspectors in Largo, Fla., spend a lot of time out in the community. Over the past 10 years, the ever-expanding city of 70,000 built a central park and a cultural center. The downtown area is currently being redeveloped, and a new 93,000-square-foot library is scheduled to open next year.

When all these projects started, building inspectors, along with public safety officials such as fire inspectors, would go on their rounds, take notes, and make one stop a day at City Hall to drop off notes for transcription by the clerical staff and search relevant records. Today, mobile workers in Largo's city government have mobile Internet access, but it's not a traditional laptop computer they drag with them to their sites.

Largo employs a thin-client architecture for its computing. All of the city's applications and data reside on servers. The thin-client itself is just a device used for access. It has no hard drive and no files. In the past, thin clients have been called ''dumb terminals'', but as the costs of buying, maintaining, and securing computers rises, they don't look so dumb anymore.

When the time came for Largo to deploy wireless computing to its mobile workers, the city brought in wireless thin-client tablets from Neoware. Building inspectors now have wireless access to the city's enterprise information systems and can access, enter, and update building permits and inspection data in real-time while in the field.

Why not a laptop? One reason is cost. ''Thin clients can cost as little as one-fourth as the average business PC,'' said Neoware CEO Mike Kantrowitz. In Largo, after all, it's the taxpayers footing the bill.

Wireless thin clients have some specific advantages over their laptop cousins. The tablets have a better battery life because there is less to power, and they are lighter because there is less to carry.

Mobile workers with PCs also pose specific security risks. A thin client is immune to standard PC viruses. There is no hard drive for workers to fill with questionable material. And while thin clients sell for less than the average PC, the cost savings really add up when you consider what users save when they don't have to defend from PC viruses and supply as much help-desk support.

Kantrowitz said thin clients are more easily managed than PCs. They are ideal for remote workers and remote offices with no tech support staff. In settings where workers need to move around, wireless thin-client tablets find new uses all the time. Airlines use them for ''line busting'' by bringing the tablet to a long line to help serve customers. They are ideal for taking inventories because they are light and mobile.

In a healthcare setting where doctors and nurses need to be mobile, but where HIPAA privacy requirements mandate that data not be stored on devices, a wireless thin client tablet may be the answer. ''A thin client is perfect for that,'' said Kantrowitz. ''It has no hard drive.''

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