Tech Industry

Straight talk on "thin clients"

Bill Gates and prominent analysts offer their opinions of what a network computer is, what's necessary to make it work, and where the market will eventually go.

ORLANDO, Florida--Bill Gates and prominent analysts are this week offering up their opinions of what a network computer is, what's necessary to make it work, and where the market will eventually go, all as part of the Gartner Group Symposium here.

In a special session, the Microsoft chief asserted that the network computer--a.k.a. "thin client," a stripped-down box used primarily for Internet surfing--is actually already here, in the form of archaic PCs. "Using old PCs is the simplest way...Older PCs devolve into NCs," Gates said, referring to 486-class and older systems.

"Just make darn sure your users don't need the features of the newer browsers," Gates added.

But that was only one of the concerns voiced here about the requirements of a feasible network computer environment, although Gartner itself projects that thin clients will find their niche--about 20 percent of all PCs--in large corporations within the next five years.

Leslie Fiering, a vice president and research director at Gartner, for example said that Internet boxes will require very responsive networks.

"The server better be available," Fiering said. "To have thin clients, you have to have a network that is fast enough and reliable." But, she added, that is not the case today.

Others agreed that the network faces serious challenges before it fulfills the promises of promoters such as Oracle and Sun Microsystems.

"For the NC to get beyond terminal replacement applications, it needs to be able to deal with increases in hardware demands for more dense data types like graphics, voice, video, and new applications like 3D VRML and 3D sound," said Kimball Brown, a vice president and chief analyst at market research firm Dataquest.

"An NC without a disk drive or high-resolution monitor is fairly useless for access to the Internet. What happens as your intranet decides to go 3D? Then you need to upgrade all your NCs," he said.

But Brown also believes that thin clients are in the works, including several built around Microsoft's own recently announced operating system for handheld computers, Windows CE.

"Keep in mind, Windows CE is the ultimate thin client," said Brown.