INTERNAUT

As more work is done on the Net, thin-client market will expand

Shawn P. McCarthy

A GCN colleague recently asked whether I thought so-called thin clients still have a future.

Yes, they do, but our definition of them will change in the next two years, especially of the ones designed for Internet activity.

Thin client is a term that includes the NetPC, based on an Intel Corp. processor and Microsoft Windows software, as well as the network computer, backed by Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. All are simplified desktop boxes, centrally managed and with minimal local software. Some lack basics such as diskette and CD-ROM drives. NCs can even run Java operating systems loaded from the network server.

The thin-client category is expanding to include things we now call information appliances or personal access devices. Their common thread is minimal client-side hardware and software. The server does most of the work.

The market for thin-client info appliances will grow as cheap, special-purpose machines let people carry the Internet around with them. Several are Java-based, but other proprietary systems are available, too.

Winds of change

A broader transformation is under way that bodes ill for all-encompassing operating systems such as Windows.'

Browsers and operating systems are different animals, and one doesn't necessarily need the other on today's Internet. Both are designed to access information. The OS does this locally, the browser remotely. The OS may rule when it comes to do-everything desktop machines, but a full OS is overkill in personal devices. Who needs to edit a computer-aided design file on a cellular phone or view multimedia files on a pager? If users don't do such tasks, they don't need the software or the OS hooks with which complex software interacts.

That means that on the road, thin is in. It's a different way of interacting than with a desktop machine. But people will dislike using a completely different system when they return to their desks. So, while users may frown on having a thin client on the desk today, that might change as they do more of their work directly on the Net.

Let's face it, most users want a floppy drive on their desks because they carry files around. If we could grab remote files via the Net, would we miss a floppy drive? For that reason, thin clients still have a lot of potential on the desktop, too.

Here are some of the thin new personal access devices that will influence the way you use the Net:

• In-car PCs with Internet access. They won't let you work on a letter or spreadsheet in your car. For that, stick with a notebook computer. Dashboard Internet computers instead will have minimal screens and keyboards for quick e-mail access and paging, plus built-in Global Positioning System location readouts and map access. Some systems will also interact with a vehicle's self-diagnostic system. Given proper encryption, think how useful such systems could be to the military services at a fraction of the price of current mobile systems. National Semiconductor Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., has a white paper on emerging information appliances at www.national.com/appinfo/solutions/0,2062,249,00.html.

• Personal information managers that double as cell phones or roving wireless network devices. Call them connected organizers. 3Com Corp.'s Palm VII device isn't there yet; you can't use it as a phone. Yes, I'm ignoring the bizarre composite system that 3Com of Santa Clara, Calif., unveiled about six months ago. But such all-encompassing devices are very useful for shared calendars, messaging and mail.

• Wearable computers. Until now, such devices had parts that hung from your belt or in front of one eye, but new prototypes make dramatic improvements in comfort and usability. Visit wearables.www.media.mit.edu/projects/wearables/ for a look at where this technology is heading.

• WebTV. This Microsoft project has been around for a couple of years. It's a good example of a non-PC specialty device. Interactive TV set-top boxes could easily find a huge market for online shopping and e-mail services, and possibly for government sites to provide access to the Internet via kiosks.

• PAD books. These wireless personal access devices resemble books more than notebook computers. They have high-resolution screens for easy reading and wireless modems for on-the-go Net access. Current models tend to run Windows CE, but you'll find them divided into special service categories, and not all need a Windows OS.

For a look at the future of networking for personal devices, check out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Project Oxygen at www.lcs.mit.edu/anniv/speakers/presentation?id=041399-3. A Scientific American article about Project Oxygen appears at www.scientificamerican.com/1999/0899issue/0899quicksummary.html.


Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos.com.

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