Needed: Simplicity

Thomas R. Temin

If you've ever played a train simulation game, you've probably discovered that steam engines are a lot harder to operate than modern locomotives. If you don't learn to balance the water supply, firebox level, steam pressure and a whole lot of other variables just right, all sorts of things can go wrong. For instance, the train won't make it up the next hill. Or the boiler might explode.

To make a diesel or electric train go, you basically push a throttle lever.

Modern locomotives are marvels of engineering, vastly more powerful, complex and capable than the hissing, smoky, cinder-belching iron horses that great-grandpa marveled at. Yet the complexity of operation is hidden from the operator, who can fall asleep while driving.

At this writing, thousands upon thousands of organizations and untold millions of people are dealing with Microsoft Service Pack 2 for Windows XP'a new chapter in a 25-year saga of desktop complexity.

PCs and PC software certainly have produced world-changing benefits. But they aren't any simpler than mainframe systems. The difference is that in mainframe systems, the complexity is the problem of a small cadre of highly trained professionals. PC complexity ties everyone up at some point. Each new chip generation and each new swelling of software functionality raises the complexity. Large PC deployments for a long time have asked many people to be, in effect, steam locomotive engineers when they just want to be passengers from point A to point B.

At the recent Air Force IT Conference, Sun Microsystems Inc. chairman Scott McNealy quipped that he was impressed with all the Air Force's IT efforts except its desktop strategy. He was pushing Sun's version of the thin client.

Indeed, the Air Force, like many agencies, has developed an elaborate strategy for buying large numbers of PCs each quarter. At the same time, agencies are looking to simplify their infrastructures, reduce their cost of ownership and boost security.

Many users will continue to require the power of a full-function PC. But for the rest, agencies should take a fresh look at a thin-client strategy.

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