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HP goes thin and mobile

Hewlett-Packard announces a new mobile thin client that's the product of its Neoware acquisition in 2007.

Sometime around 1990, Data General (who I worked for at the time) came out with a portable terminal called the Walkabout. The idea was that it would let people check their e-mail from the road using the built-in modem and terminal emulator, while being lighter and cheaper than the portable computers of the day. It wasn't as silly an idea as it might seem today--lots of people still used terminals rather than PCs at the time--but, like the DG/One, it was ahead of the hardware curve, and pricey.

Fast forward to 2007. Palm announced the Foleo as a companion to the Treo smartphone.  Palm founder Jeff Hawkins called this portable "Internet interface appliance" the best idea he ever had. Many others, including myself, begged to differ and, in the end, the product never made it to market. The issues hadn't changed all that much in close to 20 years: too similar in price and bulk to a full laptop, and a problematic fit for an only somewhat connected world.

Yet here's Hewlett-Packard introducing its first mobile thin client, a fruit of its 2007 acquisition of Neoware. From the press release:

Designed for mobile workers who have a well-defined set of tasks requiring a wide range of general-purpose software or unique business applications, the HP Compaq 6720t Mobile Thin Client is ideal for on-the-go professionals such as insurance claim processors, remote staff, warehouse and inventory managers and office administrators.

It is based on Microsoft Windows XPe and features a 15.4-inch display; solid-state design with no hard drive, fan or other moving parts; enhanced security with no data residing on the notebook; Wi-Fi Certified WLAN along with support for 3G broadband wireless via PC memory card slot; and solid-state flash module for greater durability, faster data access and more quiet and cool operation.

The 6720t also helps increase security by accessing software applications hosted on a server, virtual PC or blade PC computing platform over a secure virtual private network Internet connection. Data files and software applications also are saved remotely on a secure server to help reduce the risk of data loss, viruses and product theft.

Client management is simplified, as IT administrators are able to remotely install, manage, update and execute application software simultaneously across an entire fleet of clients that are pushed to the mobile thin clients as soon as they are connected to the network.

So why does this make sense when the earlier examples I cited didn't? There are a few factors to consider.

The general interest in thin clients. Businesses are showing an interest in thin clients as a category that far exceeds what we've seen historically. There are a variety of reasons for this that I cover in Desktops on Diets, but essentially we're seeing a convergence of trends that are achieving a certain critical mass. As a result, even though mobile thin clients may be just a slice of the overall thin client market, that overall pie is growing rapidly.

Connectivity isn't ubiquitous, but it is reliably available in certain environments. Wired campuses are becoming commonplace--universal even. More and more people likewise have wireless connectivity throughout their homes. In other words, workers who are only using their notebooks at work and at home actually do have essentially ubiquitous broadband connectivity. HP estimates that 35 percent to 40 percent of notebook users closely match this description--that is, they may take their notebooks with them to meetings or to do some work in the evening but they don't typically take them on the road.

And the management and security advantages of thin clients can be considerable. Especially when they're mobile devices. Indeed, although it's true that mixing "thin" (as in stateless) and "mobile" serves up its own set of challenges, the potential benefits can actually be greater than with desktops. After all, a desktop PC isn't likely to get left in the back of a taxicab somewhere and the fact that desktop PCs are always tethered to an Ethernet cable simplifies pushing out application updates.

HP isn't the first vendor to offer a mobile thin client. But the other entrants are mostly small firms. This announcement is notable because it isn't just another point device. Rather, it's a mobile thin client that's not only part of a broad lineup of thin client devices, but is also part of a broad lineup of HP hardware, software, and services offerings such as Consolidated Client Infrastructure (CCI). And that's really an important storyline in the rise of thin clients.

One size does not fit all, but historically vendors tended to push the narrow approaches in which they specialized. That's changing today as companies like Citrix, HP, and IBM are combining technologies developed in-house and through partners to assemble a broader application delivery story that isn't about using the same hammer for every problem.