As part of that trend, NCD just released a "Web-enabled" version of its PC-Xware server software that lets PC users launch Windows applications from a Web page without downloading the software to their hard disks. The software lets corporate developers build links into a Web page that launches a Windows application from the server and opens a workspace on the client's desktop. The software and the documents created with them are all stored on the server.
As for performance, NCD said average performance is that of a 90-MHz 486, but the number of users, amount of network traffic, and the type of client and server systems can affect the speed.
Oracle is also trying to popularize the idea of storing documents on the server instead of the client with its Network Computers, which won't even come with hard disks, at least not built in. Wyse Technologies is also marketing its WinTerm terminals as $500 Internet appliances that will let users "rent," or timeshare, Windows applications over the Internet. In this case, the central server where the applications are stored would be provided by an Internet service provider that has licensed the Wyse hardware.
Host-centric computing is a throwback to the days before DOS, Macintosh, and Windows, when users at a "dumb" terminal--nothing more than a monitor and a keyboard--would work on applications hosted on a mainframe. Performance logjams over networks and the desire for more features eventually made PCs with lots of local computing power more attractive.
But NCD and Oracle think that the Internet may prompt corporations to re-centralize the administration of software in an attempt to cut down on desktop bloat. Dumb terminals have now been reborn as "thin clients" or, in a phrase that's hard to avoid these days, "Internet appliances."
The advantage of "thin clients" may be cost, always an attractive argument for any new technology. According to Zona Research in Redwood City, California, the five-year cost of running networked PCs--covering installation, upgrades, maintenance, and network administration--is about 50 percent higher than running networked thin clients.
Nonetheless, even Zona analysts say these cheap, thin clients won't replace the office PC. Instead, they could be used for specific applications such as bank teller terminals or ticket and hotel reservations.
"You could characterize this as a move toward the future, as a client-server model not so oriented toward having everything sitting on the desktop," said Zona Research vice president Greg Blatnik. "But the idea of these thin clients or Internet terminals is [to put them] where the network usage and pattern is well-defined, even somewhat narrow. The PC user base won't be under any kind of threat."
And not all solutions will bring the cost savings associated with the $500 Wyse terminals or Network Computers. NCD's PCXware software, for example, runs only on Windows 95 PCs, thus reducing a lot of the cost advantages associated with the cheaper terminals. Companies could expect to save some money in administration and deployment, according to Blatnik, because software wouldn't need to be installed on every desktop, but the savings might be hard to quantify.
PC-Xware Classic server software sells for $395 per user or $178 per user in 100-unit shipments. PC-Xware Suite combines the server software with NFS client and server, terminal emulation, and a graphical FTP client. The suite is priced at $545 for a single user or $245 per user in 100-unit shipments. In future versions, the client software will run as a browser plug-in to let users launch applications within the browser itself, and the company plans to introduce a Web server-based administration tool suite.
Wyse debuts $500 Net access devices