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Thin clients: Is less really more?

While most mobile devices are only getting smarter, faster and more capable, the small market for thin clients -- low-cost, centrally managed PCs with minimal functionality -- is growing. In fact, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Maxspeed Corp. recently launched a thin-client notebook designed for wireless use. Who should use thin-client mobile devices, and why?

In this interview, Bob O'Donnell, director of personal technology for Framingham, Mass.-based research firm International Data Corp., shares his insights on the thin client.

Do you think the thin-client trend conflicts with the trend of smarter mobile devices?
This just puts all of the intelligence in the server. If you would rather not have something that has all of your data on it, but you still want to move from place to place, this is a good solution. You can have a browser built in and just browse the Web, for instance. This is not going to be the first thin client a company buys. It is for those that already have thin clients and are looking for a way to add mobility. Are vendors starting to produce more wireless thin clients?
Thin clients are less than 2% of the wireless market right now. But we expect that to hit 6% by 2007. This is just the very beginning. In the past, we have seen tablets without hard drives. [Now we're seeing] the very first notebook-style thin clients. I expect that we will see more of them. Given the drawbacks, why would a business choose a thin client?
Thin clients have a capacity for strong security and manageability. The management costs of PCs are multiples of the initial purchase price. Thin clients reduce management costs tremendously, but there are higher initial costs. A business has to buy more servers than it would need otherwise. But if you do the math and spread the cost out over time, it makes sense from a purely monetary perspective. You don't have to worry about constant patches. Everything is routed through a central source. Individuals can't install their own applications, which causes a high percentage of support calls.

The pricing dilemma
What do you think of the new thin client from Maxspeed Corp.?

O'Donnell: The challenge that Maxspeed faces with this product is the price. At $1,599, it is more expensive than a regular notebook, so why bother? Their argument is that companies that already use thin-client desktops can have the same manageability and security benefits, so it is worth paying a premium.

 What kinds of businesses might use a mobile thin client?
Thin clients make sense for task workers who are in jobs where they fill out forms, such as call centers, education and even hospitality. Hotels now offer high-speed Web access. What if the device just browsed the Web, and guests could use that service without having to fire up their laptops? In a notebook or tablet form, it might be useful in health care. With Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, workers are not allowed to store patient data on local devices, in case the device is lost or stolen. Everything has to be server based. That environment is perfect for thin clients. What are the drawbacks to thin clients?
The device performance is tied to how well the network performs. If the network goes down, the device also goes down. In the past, flexibility has been a concern. A thin client may not run all of the applications a business needs. But that is less true now. Just about anything you can run on a desktop, you can run on a thin client. Do they make sense in a wide area wireless network environment, given that spotty wireless coverage is common?
You certainly could use the devices with wireless cards. A lot of these devices and applications were originally designed for slow connections, and they could work well in that environment. But they are really best suited for a wireless LAN environment.

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