Who Needs PCs?

Given communications technologies and trends, our IT/Biz Alignment columnist writes, it makes sense to invest much more in the server than the client.


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There’s not much one can’t find, analyze, or purchase on the Web.

The past 10 years has seen the evolution of the Web from a passive repository of information to a proactive pusher of user-generated content and an enabler of personal and professional transactions. Educational curricula, music, films, surveys, customer service portals, travel planning, job placement boards and personal matchmaking services are all on the Web.

For some, the Web is so deeply woven into the fabric of their lives that it’s impossible for them to imagine a disconnected world. (I think I may be becoming one of these vagrants living in as much in digital as physical space. This year, for example, I am working on giving up paper.)

Let’s argue that the Internet is the ultimate virtual server and all that anyone needs to access its content and transaction capabilities is a very thin, throw-away client. The argument obviously is that we should focus much more on the virtual server than on the device used to access it.

In fact, given communications technologies and trends, it makes sense to invest in the server much more than the client. (There’s also the digital divide issue: the cheaper the access device, the more people can participate in the digital revolution.)

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Let’s look at several trends that point to why this approach makes sense. But now I believe that in addition to helping companies compute more cost-effectively, thin clients can help everyone exploit the Web -– regardless of their lot in life.

First, network access is essentially complete: we use desktops, laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs), thin clients, and a host of multi-functional converged devices, such as integrated pagers, cell phones and PDAs to access local area networks, wide area networks, virtual private networks and metropolitan networks. The networks work, damn it. Are they perfectly secure and 100% reliable? Not quite, but we’re getting there. And for those who worry about the collapse of the Internet, there’s enough redundancy and reconstitutability in the technology to make us sleep well -– if not perfectly -– at night.

Small, cheap, reliable devices that rely on always-on networks make sense. Shifting computing power from desktops and laptops to professionally managed servers makes sense. Moving storage from local drives to remote storage area networks makes sense. Fat clients should lose some weight -– a lot of weight -- as we bulk up our already able, under-utilized servers.

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