The post-PC era: Page 2

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Fat future for thin clients?

Zona predicts market for commercial thin clients will soar

thin client market

Source: Zona Research Inc.

Aberdeen expects thin clients to stake a claim on the desktop

thin client market

Source: Aberdeen Group Inc.

Zona predicts the worldwide market for thin clients will soar to over $1 billion by 2001, more than triple the 1998 total of $287 million (see chart, "Fat future for thin clients?"). Driving the increase will be an explosion in a new breed of thin clients. Blatnik believes access devices-as opposed to compute devices like PCs-are the trend. "Internet-enabled phones, pagers, other handheld devices--those are simply another form of thin clients,'' says Blatnik. "Those devices provide access, they don't run the application. You're going to have thin clients almost everywhere you turn. You'll carry them around with you." Toward that end, Yahoo! Inc. and Sprint Corp. announced the week of August 12 that a deal for Yahoo! to license customized content to users of Sprint's mobile and wireless devices.

In its own study, Aberdeen Group Inc., of Boston, projects exponential increases in unit sales of all thin client devices for accessing and processing corporate data stored on a server. By 2003, thin client platforms deployed worldwide will jump to nearly 30% of all desktop platforms, according to the predictions. Aberdeen's definition of thin clients includes Windows-based terminals, network computers, Java-based devices, handhelds, palmtops, and other browser-enabled platforms.

Thin clients are spurring an overall trend toward centralized management and control. Even companies that use PCs are increasingly electing to have applications reside on the server. This will be transparent to the user-unless the network goes down. "Systems administrators are going to exert a tremendous amount of control on your desktop whether you have a PC or some form of thin client. PCs will begin to act like thin clients," says Blatnik.

Should you go thin?

Even though thin clients may be coming into their own, they are not appropriate for every computing environment. Here's what you need to know to decide if thin clients are right for you (see "Ups and downs of going thin").

Thin clients no longer have an advantage on upfront cost. Now you can buy a decent if modest PC for $600 or $700. You may actually pay more for a thin client. A new high-end Wyse Winterm 5355SE network terminal costs $899, manufacturer suggested retail price.

What do buyers of high-end thin clients get for their money? Wyse's Winterm 5000 series includes an embedded Web browser and an SCO Tarantella interface that allows it to interact with SCO UNIX servers. It supports more than 15 types of terminal emulation, and its embedded network management protocols can interact with the most popular network management platforms, including Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG, IBM's Tivoli, and HP's OpenView.

Sold on flexibility and control

Gerry Cullen compared thin clients and PCs in 1997. Although at that time there wasn't much of a difference in the purchase prices, the Winterms offered much greater flexibility and control with application device management, says Cullen, director of special projects for Detroit Diesel-Allison B.C. Ltd., a Surrey, B.C., Canada, distributor of diesel engine parts and services. Most of Detroit Diesel's users are parts managers who access the homegrown electronic parts and services catalog application.

Flexibility and control made thin clients the natural choice for Detroit Diesel-Allison when the company migrated off a Wang Laboratories Inc. VS 10000 minicomputer. With the exception of a handful of people with PCs, the users were accustomed to green screen terminals and were not used to tweaking the settings on a control panel or installing new software programs.

Ups and downs of going thin
Improved application and device deployment
Dependable hardware (no moving parts)
Can't be used by remote workers
Users can't work locally if the network crashes
Some users may resist them

Cullen and two other IT staffers were wary of the huge support demands that would arise if they gave the Wang terminal users PCs. "With our PC users, they would fiddle around with a setting and break something. I'd spend all my time fixing the problem," says Cullen. Now, the Winterm users have access to a standard suite of applications including Microsoft Corp.'s Excel, Word, and Outlook; a terminal emulator; and some homegrown applications--all of which reside on the Citrix server.

Improved remote support

The Citrix server has "shadow" capabilities--when a user calls in with a problem from a remote office, Cullen can see exactly what's going on with the person's machine. "Remote support is so much better in this environment," says Cullen, who appreciates not having to rely on the user's description of the problem. He can solve problems much more quickly than in the Wang terminal days, when even the most urgent problem took an hour to solve. Fixing most glitches now takes just a few minutes. And Cullen estimates that getting a new Winterm up and running takes only six minutes, as opposed to one hour for a PC.

Cullen is so enthralled with the ease of support and administration for the Winterms that he's decided to migrate to an all-thin-client environment. As PCs are retired, they will be replaced by Winterms. Cullen doesn't expect a groundswell of protest. "There's probably eight people who would be resistant. I know exactly who they are," he says. Cullen and his staff are doing the groundwork now to educate users on the business reasons for moving from PCs.

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