The iPad showcased the potential but the product fell too far short of what people needed in a PC replacement and while 2-in-1s like Microsoft's Surface tablets showed we could both have a PC and tablet experience in the same product they largely got there by being PCs running most software locally and not truly addressing the promise of an appliance.
The Dongle: Lacking Accessories
Dell and others came up with the idea of a thin-client dongle, but while the solution is very portable, a little larger than a USB stick, it isn't complete in that you still need a monitor or TV, a keyboard and mouse. Instead of cutting back to nearly nothing you jump up to needing to carry at least two of these things and locating a monitor or TV in order to actually work. The dongle is working well for digital signage because that doesn't have any of the problematic requirements that force the other accessories.
The smartphone is the device most of us carry today, and we can put a thin client instance on one. Smartphones, at least those in the high-end, can connect to monitors and Bluetooth mice and keyboards. In fact, with sensors, a phone could actually be the mouse or keyboard depending on its size, and could connect to a monitor or TV wired or wirelessly.
Some may recall that Apple initially seemed to be on this path, with the iPhone as its first iteration. Unfortunately, the technology wasn't ready and neither was Apple, but I think Jobs' idea had far more merit than it was given credit for.
I think once folks fully grasp that a thin client can effectively be anything, someone will step in and create something amazing.
Thin Client Lives On
I think the vision that Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy initially came up with was and still is compelling. Who wouldn't want a PC that was as reliable as an appliance and not only booted up and retained status, but that you didn't need to carry with you.
Over the last two decades the industry has addressed the problems with the back-end of this technology, but now we need to rethink the client and make it more complete for users who have both business and entertainment needs. Being connected to cloud services like Mainframe 2 for business and OnLive for Grid Gaming for entertainment is possible now and generally provides better separation between consumer and business use cases today.
We still need to rethink the client based on today's capabilities and needs, and those cloud services need to step up to the full set of requirements for all of the personal and business use cases. Whether it is Google, Microsoft, Dell, Apple or someone we've never heard of, someone will figure this out in the next five years and I'll bet the market flips again.
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