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Mobile thin clients have a bright future in the cloud era

Mobile thin clients could offer the best of both worlds for the enterprise: the convenience of a mobile device, with the functions of a desktop PC -- for a fraction of the cost.

It's getting easy to see why the future of organizational IT and mobile devices alike -- processing, storage, security, management and more -- is in the cloud.

Today's mobile devices are basically little computers with processors, memory, local storage, a few interfaces, operating systems (OSes) and applications. But smartphones are also expensive, complex and fragile. And given that IT today is focused on the four C's -- control, collaboration, cloud and cost-effectiveness -- they are perhaps even counterproductive in an enterprise setting.

As a result, the idea of mobile thin clients, which has been floating around for the past decade or so, could finally gain traction in the enterprise. The "little computer" model is the natural evolution of the computer itself, as microprocessors have become cheaper, faster, smaller, and more power-efficient and functionally comprehensive over the decades. The other required elements -- RAM, flash storage, display screens and so on -- have followed suit.

With corresponding advances in mobile OSes and apps, the traditional computing model of the 1950s onward has simply been repackaged and dramatically scaled down in cost, and up in price and performance. This trend may be good for consumers, but it's increasingly inappropriate for, and even detrimental to, contemporary IT.

The reason is the industry has essentially flipped the cost model of computing upside down. For many years, computers were expensive -- astonishingly so. My first personal computer, as an undergraduate in 1973, was a $7 million IBM 360/67 mainframe, which consumed the entire room and had perhaps 0.001% of the computational performance of today's handsets. And the data these mainframes operated on was quite limited in scope and scale; a large, washing machine-sized disk drive might hold a whopping 30 MB -- expensive computers, cheap data.

Today, it's the computer that's cheap, and the data is priceless. IT's mission has evolved from being the computer department to the networks department to the manager and conservator of information.

This is truly the best of all worlds: convenient, cost-effective, reliable, scalable and uniformly simple.

This inversion of the cost model has accelerated the current evolution from client-server to cloud-based computing. We are finally getting beyond the sharing of local disks and the burden of synchronization to an era where all data and IT services will be available, managed, secured and backed up for all authorized devices transparently, anytime and anywhere over broadband wireless connections, without regard to the specific local device or OS in use. This model is truly the best of all worlds: convenient, cost-effective, reliable, scalable and uniformly simple.

Mobile thin clients, along with local apps, can provide an interface to this cloud functionality. Thin clients might also prove useful for vertical market applications.

After all, today's applications require much more processing and storage than is feasible for a cell phone handset, and collaboration requires centralized control, with the cloud being a convenient location for this element.

A counterargument is that mobile thin clients require a network connection, although some local processing isn't precluded; for example, limited personal productivity apps and games are safe. But in the organizational world, offline is the same as being out of the loop: no network; no current data; no productivity.

Fortunately, from businesses and homes to airplanes and stadiums, broadband 4G and Wi-Fi is available just about anywhere. And having so much capability in the cloud takes the burden of mobility management off of the handset.

For the enterprise, thin is in -- with a broad range of benefits for IT organizations.

Next Steps

Smaller iPad and iPhone could work as enterprise mobile devices

What to look for in a thin client device

The basics of mobile thin clients

This was last published in March 2016

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