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The impersonal PC

While there's much to be said for widespread personal access, let's not confuse it with truly personal computing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Las Vegas for the Citrix iForum show. Citrix is best known for its Presentation Server product, nee MetaFrame. Presentation Server delivers specific business applications to remote desktops using Windows Terminal Server on the back-end. It's usually thought of in terms of thin client computing; in fact, the vast majority of Presentation Server installations deliver applications to ordinary PCs. (I describe the technology in more depth in this Illuminata research note.) However, these days, Citrix has many other products as well, variously tailored to delivering applications and full desktop images to a variety of clients.

I've been seeing more interest among IT folks in alternatives to traditional desktops over the past year since, well, ever. Traditional SMS-style provisioning and management systems never truly performed up to hopeful expectations; increasing concerns about security have only exacerbated an already sub-par situation. Nor are users thrilled with the current state of affairs. Their PCs tend to accumulate "cruft" (that's the technical term) over time and software loads "blow up" (another technical term) periodically. Furthermore, IT policies intended to keep things under some vague semblance of control tend to consist, in no small part, of long lists of "Thou shall nots" that limit what users can do with corporate PCs.

And, before the various fanboys chirp in, switching to Linux or a Mac doesn't make all these issues magically go away.

Products from Citrix and others (such as VMware's ACE) offer a variety of alternatives to a forced choice between a locked-down corporate desktop and an environment where anything goes. Largely orthogonal to these approaches from a technical perspective, but conceptually related, are rich internet applications (RIAs) that run within essentially any endpoint device that has a browser. Such applications underpin Software as a Service (SaaS), in which data and software exist largely in the "cloud" rather than in a user's PC or mobile client.

We've seen and heard a lot of praise for the democratic impulse associated with this particular phase of computing that often goes by the Web 2.0 moniker. Anyone can post. Anyone can publish. Anyone can photograph. Your vote matters in social media. And alternative ways of accessing and running applications have indeed made it easier to do things outside of a strict IT framework. In his closing iForum keynote Citrix CEO Mark Templeton used the phrase "Making the personal computer personal again" for this idea.

There's truth in this characterization, but the situation is far more complicated than distributed vs. centralized computing. In some respects, access is indeed more distributed--not only in the alternatives to tightly-controlled corporate desktops, but also to the myriad mobile devices that are woven more and more deeply into both personal and professional lives.

At the same time, the "cloud" is a new element and a new form of centralization. PCs (and, for that matter, Unix in the early days) was, for many, about distributing and maintaining control over data as well as access and computation. The applications that are increasingly central to the lives of many people today are much different. Data is centralized, not distributed, and often flows in but one direction: in. The real software intelligence is increasingly centralized as well. Delving into those topics deeper is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that, while there's much to be said for widespread personal access, let's not confuse it with truly personal computing.