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Bring thin clients to the home

The cable and telecommunications companies have fallen down when it comes to delivering hosted desktops to consumers.

I visited my dad in Maine over the weekend and, as is often the case, part of the weekend was devoted to "IT administration," aka attending to PCs and associated gadgetry.

While some of the time involved transferring photos among various devices, a decent chunk was devoted to working on a PC whose operating system had decided to irretrievably corrupt itself somehow, requiring a fresh rebuild. And, yes, it was Windows--Windows XP to be precise--but please don't try to tell me that this sort of thing never happens with your favorite OS of choice.

This story isn't about Windows; it's about the inherent complexity of PCs of all stripes with locally installed and administered software. And this, to basically look at photos, play solitaire, and read e-mail through a browser.

The frustrating thing to me is that we basically know how to deal with this problem. It just isn't implemented in anything approaching a widespread way. It's also an approach that various people have been bringing up off and on for years. Take this article by Rupert Goodwins from ZDNet in 2004.

This solution is delivering a hosted desktop over broadband to a client device offered as part of an ISP's service. In other words, for some additional monthly fee, you'd rent a thin client from Comcast or Verizon just as you can rent a DVR today. They'd give you a standard desktop image along with a profile that could be personalized (including your desktop background) and space for your user data. They'd back up the whole thing and would be able to restore to the standard desktop image in the event of problems.

The thin client doesn't even need to be a desktop. Mobile thin clients are also readily available. It would have no local storage--that is, no local hard disk to crash.

There are various wrinkles that service providers would need to work out--such as dealing with additional applications that users might want to install and drivers for locally attached USB devices such as printers.

But we, as an industry, know how to do this. Desktone is one company that offers what it calls Desktops-as-a-Service. Essentially, it sells software that enables enterprises and service providers to build a hosted desktop infrastructure.

Service providers can then resell these hosted desktops to others. For example, in April Desktone announced a deal with ICC Global hosting around offering cloud-based virtual hosted desktops based on the Desktone Virtual-D Platform to organizations in the academic, public sector, and mid-tier business markets.

So hosted desktops, which you can think of as a cloud-computing-oriented implementation of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) are real. They just haven't made it out to consumers in anything approaching a widespread way.

Such a service wouldn't be for everyone--or even most. Many are more than willing to trade off the sometimes frustrating complexities of a full-fledged PC for the flexibility it brings. (Although I do wonder if it wouldn't be interesting for a supplemental device intended primarily for browsing even in a house with one or more PCs.)

But it does seem to me as if the cable and telecommunications companies have fallen down when it comes to offering what could be a very useful service for many. And, not incidentally, one they could charge an additional fee for--something that they're never shy about doing.