Terminal Velocity

Back in the early days of business computing, operators accessed the back-end system – such as a mainframe or minicomputer – via a green screen terminal. Terminals were disposable devices. No one ever said, “Oh I wish I had a faster VT100 [terminal].” They had the terminal comprising a keyboard and a screen and used it as the user interface to access software running on the back-end system.

The Commodore Pet, Apple II and Tandy TRS-80, released in 1977, directly led to the development of the IBM PC and the desktop computing revolution. The rest, as they say, is history. Terminal-based computing was relegated to the recycle bin and after the introduction of the Apple Mac in 1984 and later Windows, the command line user interface, as used on terminals, was effectively killed off.

SaaS as terminal-based computing

What has this got to do with modern desktop computing? While no one – apart from a certain genre of system admin – requires a command line user interface, we are all using a modern version of the terminal each and every day. Browser-based computing is nothing more than a user interface on top of a back-end web-server application. The dominance of SaaS in enterprise IT has demonstrated the effectiveness of this deployment model.

There is no need to install software images on physical PC hardware. Everything runs in the cloud and can be accessed through a browser. The Mac versus PC or iOS versus Android debate goes away too, as the software is generally compatible across different web browsers. So, with the ability to run on any hardware, there should be very little need to purchase new devices. In fact, end user devices are just like the terminals in the 1970s. They effectively provide access to a suite of software, running on back-end systems.

In a recent chat with Computer Weekly, Gartner analyst, Annette Zimmerman, said that only 25% of a device’s total carbon footprint is produced during its useful life. Given that 50 million business PCs ship each year and each one produces 350 grams of CO2 emissions, anything business IT can do to extend the upgrade cycle, has a direct impact on global warming. Increasing a laptop’s life from three to four years also means that the acquisition cost of the hardware is extended by a third. That’s 33% more useful life, with the acquisition cost spread over four years.

It’s good news for those who control the budget and demonstrates how IT can contribute to helping prevent global warming from rising by more than 1.5 °C. The big question then becomes whether employees are prepared to use old hardware. Perhaps there are still lessons society can learn from terminal-based computing.