Feature

Tech talk: Follow the IT diet - get fat

The idea that we are moving towards ubiquitous thin clients is the opposite of the truth.

We are all getting fatter, and so are our clients. Not in the corporeal sense, I trust, but in computing terms. "Fat clients" now dominate the IT industry, and they are starting to take over the television and telephone markets.

Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle Corporation, made the idea of thin clients big news in 1995 when he launched an attack on the personal computer industry and, in particular, Microsoft's Bill Gates. This moderately interesting but hardly novel idea was wildly overhyped by journalists who either did not have a clue or preferred putting the boot into Microsoft to telling their readers the truth.

With hindsight we can see that Ellison's NC (network computer) has been a resounding flop, and PCs are now used in the majority of US and UK homes. But, interestingly, not only did the thin client idea fail in computing, what used to be thin clients are now putting on weight.

The humble phone was the ultimate thin client - a dumb handset attached to a smart network that delivered everything down the wire. Today, you can get phones that run Spectrum games, send e-mail and surf the Internet.

Mobile phones are becoming even more sophisticated, and most "smartphones" are now designed around computer operating systems such as Symbian (from Psion), Palm OS or Microsoft's adapted Pocket PC (Windows CE) software. You can, of course, claim that these are thin clients, but they are a lot bulkier than they used to be.

The television set was another classical thin client, and again, it is becoming fatter by the day. Either televisions are getting their own built-in digital "smarts" or they are being added via a set-top box or personal video recorder (PVR) such as the Tivo.

The trend is away from dumb displays towards interactive sets with the ability to present picture-in-picture displays, allow online voting or even send e-mail and SMS text messages.

To be clear, I have nothing against thin clients. There have been some successful thin client projects, such as France's distribution of free Minitel terminals, more than a decade before Ellison "reinvented" the idea.

Sometimes thin clients are exactly the right thing to install. However, decisions about fat, thin or in-between should be taken by competent people after mature consideration of the situation, not based on some cranky pseudo-religious posturing about network computing.

And as an independent observer, I feel duty bound to point out that the world is not moving towards thin clients/smart networks. It is going in exactly the opposite direction.
Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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This was first published in January 2003

 

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