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Thin clients: Not just ROI

It turns out that, for a lot of buyers, security/compliance and better user experience are more interesting reasons than ROI to consider thin clients.

For as long as I've been following alternatives to traditional "fat client" desktops, most vendors have been touting thin client and related technologies mostly in the context of better return on investment (ROI).

They'll admit that up-front costs are higher. They'll even reluctantly concede that the user experience (in the sense of response time, adding a unique application, and so forth) may not be as good as for a traditional PC. But, the pitch goes, management costs will be so reduced that you'll make back your money.

As for the users? Well, so long as the thin client pitch has been mostly about gear for call centers and the like, it's hardly surprising that IT buyers often haven't put of a premium on richness of experience for that class of user. It's about the basic function.

The resulting business that this approach has driven has been respectable enough--especially for Citrix--but it's been fundamentally niche-y. Something for specific uses and users, rather than something broader.

One reason is that, to be frank, a lot of buyers don't believe ROI claims. The size of an up-front check you write is something tangible. Purported savings over the next three years? Not so much. Especially given that the savings are often "soft costs" that posit things like lower management costs or higher user productivity. Vendors may not be able to justify literally anything with the right ROI study. But they can try.

Moreover, justifying thin client computing strictly on a cost basis depends on these sorts of soft cost savings. After all, in a typical thin client architecture, you still need a desktop device (with a hardware bill of materials that isn't really all that much slimmer than that of a regular PC) plus you need all the back-end servers and software to deliver applications.

As a result, suppliers of complete (hardware/software/services) thin client solutions have started emphasizing two other benefits of thin client computing: compliance/security and user experience benefits.

The compliance and security aspect is pretty obvious. If data and applications aren't stored locally on a user's PC, they can't "walk" out the door. And, in general, it's pretty commonsensical that centralized applications and desktops would be easier to control whether we're talking software licensing or enforcing data retention policies.

In fact, the only thing that surprises me is that vendors didn't more widely focus on this aspect on thin client computing before now. To be sure, there's a broader awareness of data security issues, more compliance regulations, and more remote contract workers today. But ClearCube, an early "Blade PC" company, built its business largely on demand from three-letter government agencies and others for whom security was a front-and-center requirement. So antecedents were there to see.

It also shouldn't be a surprise that the historical "cheaper but not as good as a PC" storyline around thin client computing never had a whole lot of grassroots support. However, today, we have faster networks (both wide area and local area); this helps at the infrastructure level. Perhaps fundamentally, we're starting to see a variety of application and desktop virtualization approaches.

The specifics differ considerably but these new (and "reimagined") forms of virtualization collectively focus on delivering applications and operating systems to a user PC in a controlled way. For IT, this means a thin client-like degree of centralized management. But users still have a conventional desktop--or even notebook--so they retain the PC experience. And that experience can be even better to the degree that their operating system and applications can be easily refreshed ("de-crappified" to use the technical term).

Think of it as a sort of hybrid client model. In fact, this model has even broader implications in that it means that IT can selectively control and wall off parts of a PC without necessarily taking control of the whole thing.

This, in turn, means that many of the past justifications for PCs as locked-down corporate assets no longer apply. But that's a topic for another post.