Thin Client, Thinner Idea

Every so often a truly great idea comes along. More often though, ideas aren’t so great or are great only in the mind of whoever thought them up, with the rest of us scratching our heads trying to figure why anyone thinks those ideas have merit. You wouldn’t think that a bad idea would float around Silicon Valley for long – too many bright people there – any idea would be tried and used successfully or abandoned when it flopped or before. One bad idea, that like Dracula just won’t stay dead and buried, is the “Thin Client.” In this scenario your computer is just a dumb terminal; all actual computing is done on a server that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. This was first proposed twenty years ago; it lives on today primarily as Google Chromebooks. It didn’t make much sense years ago; it doesn’t fly today. Since most computing, then and now, can be done locally on inexpensive handhelds, netbooks, or notebooks, why would anyone prefer a more expensive, more complicated solution?

The more you think about it, the more you have to ask, “Why?” That scenario is much more complex than local computing. I did document processing (creating and editing spreadsheets and word processing documents) on Palm handhelds years ago. No remote server needed. Those same handhelds weren’t so great when connected to the Internet. “Lightning fast with no lag” was a dream, and not a dream come true. Today, processors and data connections are faster, but anyone with a Smartphone will tell you there are many places you can’t get a good data connection. Frustrating, to say the very least.

I live in a large city. There’s a very nice city neighborhood about three miles from downtown where cell coverage is iffy. It’s not unusual to drop calls. Another area called Mt. Washington overlooks the central business district. It’s not a real mountain, just a big, tall hill. Looking over the terrain, especially from atop Mt. Washington, you’d think this was the best place around for any type of radio connection. You’re up high, there are communication towers there, plus you have a view for miles and can see many communication towers in every direction. But Mt. Washington is one of the worst places around for cell and other radio reception. Strange, but true. A taxi driver told me that he has trouble using his two cell phones up there, and his taxi radio also has reception problems. There are downtown locations where I’ve had problems, probably due to the tall buildings. I could list other problem spots, but the point is, coverage isn’t universal or perfect, so why would you tie yourself to a device that needs good wireless coverage at all times?

Then there’s the data plan itself. Only one of the large cellular carriers offers unlimited data, and that carrier has coverage and other problems that make them less than perfect. The cost of a data plan and likely overages isn’t cheap; then there’s the cost of your time trying to find the ideal location to get a strong data connection. That ideal location may not exist inside many buildings, out in the middle of nowhere, in many U.S. cities and towns, aboard planes, and many other places. If Wi-Fi is available on the plane or other locations, it’s not free and it’s often not cheap. You can’t live at Starbucks sucking up free Wi-Fi all day, every day. The price you pay for an hour or two of Wi-Fi coverage here and there will add up over the lifetime of a device.

You may think that since these devices do less and have fewer parts and fewer capabilities, they will be relatively inexpensive. And you’d be wrong! These crippled devices, for whatever insane reason, cost more, almost twice what a netbook costs, and netbooks have local storage.

If you’re using computers for business, there’s a cost for business software, likely Microsoft Office. You don’t have the upfront investment if you’re using a Chromebook-type device, but you will pay a few dollars monthly to use most online document services. That few dollars a month will add up over three years to about the cost of a copy of Microsoft Office. You may have some favorite programs or MS Office add-ons. Guess what you won’t be using on your “cloud computer.” Games? Companies may think their people will gain hours of productivity if they aren’t playing Solitaire and other games. This may work for a few days. Then they’ll be IMing each other about the great games they’ve found online – thousands of games that suck you in and waste much more time than Solitaire ever could (while consuming expensive data).

Software does have problems, whether it’s on one laptop, or… oops, the server/service you’re trying to contact is down and your programs and documents are unavailable. Unavailable to everyone in the entire company (and all companies and everyone. Everyone!). You know the outage won’t happen Sunday morning at 5am. Murphy’s Law says it will happen as you are doing something very important, such as a demo to a key client, who will be very unimpressed that you have no backup plan and are left waiting for another company to fix whatever is wrong.

I know, you’ve had problems with your computer. You were doing a PowerPoint presentation last week and your laptop went crazy. The difference is, good planning would dictate more than one laptop ready to go. A few seconds, less than a minute, and everything is back on track. You’ll be praised for your fast, professional recovery, and no one will even remember the glitch.

Many companies have one of more specialized software programs that run only on a certain platform, often Microsoft Windows. Tell your IT professional you want to use these programs on Linux, iPad, or the cloud, and you’ll get a dirty look as he explains “No” to you.

Another thing I don’t understand about this Silicon Valley Frankenstein Monster: many people in that part of the country are very interested in ecology – The Green Movement. I can’t think of anything more wasteful of resources and less green than having to build, maintain, and power a vastly increased infrastructure so that millions of people can compute on distant servers.

Backers of these “computerless computers” claim the ongoing cost of ownership is lower since there’s less to go bad. No hard drive, very little installed software (just a browser and a basic OS), so you shouldn’t need service or repairs. Murphy’s Law says otherwise. Next point, this particular item would have been more valid ten or twenty years ago. Computers weren’t as reliable, and people weren’t as used to using them. Today, computers just work, often for years. Mate a good computer with a local backup plan and an automatic off-site data backup service such as Carbonite or 3Exact and you’re good to go, with a minimum of problems.

The best solution may be what Apple is offering with iOS5 and iCloud. You create and edit documents and do other computing locally on your device. When you Save or a program auto-saves the data is pushed to the cloud (Apple’s servers). The data then gets pushed to whatever computers or iOS devices you designate so your latest data is always backed up and instantly available on other devices. If a data connection is unavailable, you can still perform computing functions on your local device, and your device will talk to the cloud later when a data connection is available. You can also do complete daily backups of each iOS device to the cloud. The concept will take some tweaking for corporate use, but the capabilities will grow. And Apple isn’t alone. Many companies and service providers are putting in long hours developing their own versions of iCloud.

So we return to my question: Why? If you’re the proprietor of a computer museum, these devices would look good sitting next to the Osborne, Pet, and Kaypro computers. Unless you have a unique reason, and there are some, you want to do all or most computing locally on your device. You’re not gaining anything with a Chromebook-type device, you’re not saving money, but you are limiting what you can do. This would be a great device for Fred Flintstone.


About pdacomputing

Small business owner in Pittsburgh, PA. I've used different mobile platforms over the years; currently using 2 very different platforms.
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