Amid a field choked with competing low-maintenance, limited-use desktop computers tied to a powerful server machine, HP has thrown its weight behind an alternative featuring the familiar Windows interface.
"We want to be the largest vendor of Window-based Terminals," said David Fearnhead, general manager of thin clients for HP. "This is a complementary product to PCs and is not designed to displace it," he said, describing his company's view of the broader market.
The most recent take on "thin client" desktops, WBTs are essentially limited function X-terminals with a Windows interface. Application processing is performed by the server; the WBT mostly serves as a viewing device of data on the server.
Fleets of WBTs are connected via server software from Citrix or Microsoft running on top of Windows NT. Like X-terminals and Network Computers, WBTs are targeted at companies with large numbers of task workers who only need to access a limited number of applications.
The hardware and software acquisition costs for a WBT network are roughly equal, and can even be higher, than the hardware and software costs for outfitting a company with standard PCs, according to Fearnhead. The cost advantage comes in administration and product lifespan, he asserted.
Further, terminals are easier to administer from a central location, which reduces system management costs. They only need to be replaced every five to six years, rather than every three or four years for desktops, because the central microprocessor only performs a few tasks.
"There is not as much 'churn' on the desktop. When you upgrade, you upgrade the server. You don't upgrade the desktop," he said.
But Fearnhead added: "You do need a larger server."
HP's WBT was designed and is being manufactured by Wyse, according to sources at Wyse. It contains an embedded SC 400 processor from Advanced Micro Devices, 16MB of memory, a 10Base-T network interface card, and a keyboard. It will sell for an estimated $699.
Although touted as the next big thing for close to two years now, thin client computers have sold below most expectations thus far. Among other things, thin clients had the misfortune of coming to market just as PC prices dipped below the $1,000 mark.
Hardware vendors have also dampened sales by muddying the waters in advocating different types of thin clients, added Fearnhead. Sun and others have advocated the Network Computer, which performs some processing and is optimized to work with the Java programming language. Intel and other companies have also touted the NetPC, which is a PC without disk drives.
Eventually, the situation is expected to clear up. Sales are expected to hit 6.8 million units by 2002, according to International Data Corporation.