Opinion piece on thin client and latest Google and MS announcements. The major MS announcement being that somehow they are going to make Office available for free via the web. Somehow I think that won't include Exchange but then who knows.
by Chris Howard Jul 15, 2009
On June 14, 2005, I wrote an article proposing over a future filled with thin client technology. Reader response was negative, generally suggesting thin-client would come to nothing and that people wouldn't trust their personal files to the internet. But recent announcements by Google and Microsoft have renewed my expectation of a thin-client future, a future where you won't need a powerful computer, as the applications will be delivered over the web to your browser (like Google Docs) and all the processing is done on the host server.
Also, recently I had an interview with a manufacturing come and was pleasantly surprised to find it ran thin-client technology. And a few weeks before that I eavesdropped a conversation in my local cafe of three executive types, and one of them pulled out a thin-client terminal and told his peers it was the way of the future.
In the enterprise, thin client is still alive and kicking, and still growing.
Google Chrome OS will kick off the push to get thin-client into the home and Microsoft wasted no time announcing it was getting on that train too.
I am still a netbook skeptic but Google's approach undermines my resolve a little. The big problem with netbook marketing of the last 12 months has been its portrayal as a desktop (and/or laptop) computer. This is why demand has grown for larger and larger screens on netbooks. Initially netbooks were 7", now they are as large as 12", which is defeating the whole philosophy of netbooks.
Conversely, the iPhone has seen massive success as an internet device - despite its tiny screen - which suggests people would be quit happy with small screens on their internet device. So a 7" netbook screen was a good size. They just needed a different interface.
Google's entry into netbooks reclaims the netbook as an internet device. Being essentially a thin-client device, it by its nature defines expectations. There can't be any confusion about what it can and can't run. Salesmen won't be able to mislead you into thinking it can replace your laptop or desktop needs.
I still wouldn't get one because I'm exceptionally happy with my iPhone. It does for me most of what I would use a netbook for. And for those tasks the iPhone can't perform, I have the MacBook.
But iPhones are only 20% of the smartphone market, and therefore a small part of the entire mobile phone market. Therefore, many of the non-smartphoners could well take to the Google netbook when looking for an internet device.
And this would be the beginning of the move of the thin-client concept into the consumer market.
It's only been four years since my article but things have changed so much. Online storage has boomed (eg DropBox), Google has entered the web-app space (which again store your docs online), social networking has taken off, and people are trusting the internet more than ever.
That article makes interesting reading now. Mostly I think I was getting it right. However, I did predict Microsoft would be the greatest beneficiary of thin-client. But it seems Google is trying to overtake it. Which might explain Microsoft's announcement "that Office Web applications will be available ... through Windows Live, where more than 400 million consumers will have access to Office Web applications at no cost". Not that I'm suggesting it was an announcement in reaction to Google's Chrome OS.
Apple has also dabbled a bit in a future of thin clients delivering web based apps. It has iWork.com that currently only allows you to share your iWork files online and have others annotate them. It's not hard to imagine Apple working on online version of iWork that allows editing.
It also stuck its toe in the water with the first iPhone, which ran web-based apps. But without any serious apps from Apple itself to support the concept, web-based apps on the iPhone floundered and sunk. Thereafter Apple brought out the iPhone SDK and the app store and things went a little nuts.
Thin-client won't be for everyone immediately. Netbooks will be the beginning as they are ideally suited, being firstly web devices. But as the internet evolves, you'll see more and more desktop functionality migrated to web based apps, until one day you'll realise it's the way you mostly work.
Google and Microsoft's announcements serve to confirm thin-client is coming to a consumer near you.