Earlier this week, I was at Dell's analyst update on its thin client business and it got me thinking about how thin clients were supposed to replace personal computers. An experience that was instant on/off, that embodied simplicity and reliability and that not only had the performance of a PC but could be updated without any user impact was a compelling idea.
Unfortunately, the compromises were initially far too great. Today technologies like NVIDIA Grid, MU-MIMO, and hosted services like Mainframe 2 have largely removed the impediments to making the change (they still lack and likely will continue to lack on airplanes), but I think the market is waiting for a trigger. Let me explain.
A couple things were amazing about thin clients: They tended to be much more reliable and they retained state. This was Scott McNealy's favorite demo. He would take a smartcard and log into a machine and open a job, then pull the card, put it into another machine and pick up exactly where he left off. I think everyone who saw this wanted it. Problem was that the rest of the solution was no good.
Initially, thin clients had three big problems: They were expensive, their performance stunk and they weren't backward compatible.
The real question wasn't why they didn't sell well. It was who would ever want to buy something like this. Over time, Oracle and Sun — who had pioneered the concept failed out of the — and HP and Dell, pretty much took it over. They knew better what was needed and were far more realistic about setting expectations, but the market didn't pivot, the products simply moved into areas ranging from digital signage to data entry. It wasn't until the iPad that folks suddenly started talking about the PC being replaced by a far more limited device.
More recently NVIDIA Grid and Qualcomm's MU-MIMO technologies came to market, which together should allow a thin client device to fully step into a PC's role far more seamlessly. Grid provides a unique server designed from the ground up for PC-level loads at scale, and MU-MIMO provides a wired switch-like performance on a wireless network — both critical to addressing the performance problems that thin clients have traditionally had.
But I think we are now waiting for someone to create a unique client device.
iPad as Appliance
I think the iPad penetration best showcased that people wanted a far more appliance-like experience. Unfortunately, Apple didn't go far enough and the massive wave they created that had everyone arguing that the PC was dead appears to be dropping off and PCs are currently selling very well again.
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