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A solution seeking a problem

Network computers, Windows-based terminals, and Net PCs are finally coming to market after months of fanfare.

"Thin client" computing is becoming more and more real--and that's just the problem.

After months of fanfare, the market is finally witnessing the arrival of network computers, Windows-based terminals (WBTs), Net PCs, and the server, application, and "The well managed PC environment is still the most cost-effective environment," said John Fredericksen, a Microsoft manager for a Windows Terminal product. networking environments that will animate these so-called thin client devices. Unfortunately, while recent product advancements showcase what can be accomplished by thin client computing, these developments also reveal where and how the new systems fall short when compared against the price and performance of ordinary personal computers.

Thin client desktops often come at a higher price than more powerful PCs. The ability to manage fleets of thin clients from a central location--the main selling point of thin clients--is rapidly becoming a feature of PCs. Scalability, or the ability to run many desktops off a single server, is not as great as promised.

And, for the most part, thin clients aren't even complete. Sun Microsystems' Javastation will not be released commercially until the first quarter of next year.

"As the price of PCs comes down, the price of terminals has to come down...The demand hasn't been strong enough for them to price aggressively yet," said John Frederiksen, Microsoft group product manager for Hydra, the company's code name for server software for "dumb" terminals that is being previewed at Comdex. "The well-managed PC environment is still the most cost-effective environment."

Meanwhile, supporters of thin clients are splintering. "We've seen a lot of the promise of

Wyse's Winterm 2600SE
NCs not delivered," said Jeff McNaught, senior director at Wyse, which this week formally said it was abandoning NC development for Windows terminals. Instead, the company previewed four new terminals, including a Java-based terminal that will compete directly with NCs.

IBM said it is passing on WBTs. Compaq Computer is less clear on what it will do.

"If you look at the past year, there's been a lot of discussions about light clients," said Michael Takemura, product marketing manager for desktops in North America at Compaq. "Then reality stuck in, and people began to ask how big is the market, what is this going to be," he said, estimating that small clients will be 10 to 15 percent of the market at best.

Still, the weeklong computer extravaganza has become ground zero for advocates of thin computing. Microsoft, backed by Citrix and others, has made the Hydra/Windows Terminal concept a central theme of the show. Wyse, Boundless, Network Computing Devices, and Tektronix are all showcasing Windows Terminals while Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment, and Compaq, among others, are demonstrating server capabilities.

Cyrix has revealed a reference platform for computer vendors to build sub-$500 Net PCs, a move that follows a rash of Net PCs releases from major vendors, including Dell Computer, HP, Compaq, and Acer. All of these companies have their wares on the show floor.

NC vendors are expected to start rolling out more

Sun's JavaStation
devices toward the end of the year, though it appears that the much-touted and often-delayed Javastation from Sun won't appear until the first quarter next year. It was expected as early as February 1997, and more recently promised for November.

While limited in many respects, customer interest nonetheless continues to grow, especially for terminals, the least powerful of the three.

"We are talking to some people about Javastations. One large company is very serious about it," said Ahmad Gramian, a principal at CorpInfo Systems/MicroAge, a large Los Angeles reseller. "But we're seeing a lot of interest in Citrix among manufacturing customers. Just about every customer we have is interested in Citrix."

"It's been a slower sales cycle than I anticipated or the vendors anticipated," commented Eileen O'Brien, director of network computer products at International Data Corporation, of the WBT class of device. "But there are a lot of major pilots going on. Sales could materialize by the end of the year."

The idea underpinning all three of the principal thin client computing architectures is roughly the same. Under thin client computing, application processing and data storage is shifted from the desktop to a centrally managed server. Servers also exert greater control over the autonomy of the desktop.

Under all three configurations, users cannot add software or insert media at the desktop. Central information technology managers can also turn off computers at will or update software from a remote location.

Ideally, thin client architectures cut costs because managers do not have to load applications at each individual desktop. Managers can also prevent users from letting loose errant applications on the network.

While these advantages exist, the architecture comes with its own problems, according to Kimball Brown, an analyst at Dataquest. Since terminals depend on servers, a network collapse means a complete halt to work. Data storage on servers also costs much more. Hard disks for desktops run about 3 to 5 cents per megabyte. Storage on servers from Sun cost about 50 cents a megabyte. IBM storage costs even more.

"If you are going to run Windows applications, I don't know if it is that good a way to do it," he said.

By 2000, NCs and terminals will account for only 5 million desktops out of 130 million sold that year. Mostly, current terminal customers will buy them.

Ironically, most thin client advocates agree with Brown's prognosis of the potential customer pool.

"We never pitch ourselves as a panacea," said Mark Templeton, vice president of marketing at Citrix, a company that makes WinFrame, a client-server solution for creating terminal environments on top of Windows NT networks. "Where someone needs to work on a disconnected basis, we don't have a solution for that, but that's OK."

It's OK, Templeton added, because Citrix-enabled terminal networks are primarily targeted at "green screen" terminal replacements, not PC replacements. Only 20 percent of Citrix's customers use WinFrame clients to run productivity applications. The lion's share use them as classic, limited function terminals.

Further, most customers don't even buy specialized terminal hardware, he added. Eighty percent or more use PCs as their terminal units.

Net PC and NC manufacturers have come to the same conclusion, although early on both camps declared that their respective devices could revolutionize the desktop.

"There is a segment of customers out there, but it's not going to replace all PCs," Takemura said. "We see a lot of demand in retail banking, in hospital administration, in both customer support centers," which are classic terminal users.

Most Javastation beta sites are using their units as terminals, according to Steve Tirado, director of product marketing for Java Systems at Sun. As a result, the company will release an "alternative main application" version of the Javastation without productivity applications that can be optimized for terminal-like functions.  

Go to: Going beyond the desktop