Microsoft preparing Windows XP-based thin clients

It wants to offer a lower-cost OS alternative for server-centric computing

Microsoft Corp. is working on two thin-client versions of Windows XP to offer a lower-cost operating system alternative for users of server-centric computing, people familiar with the company's plans said.

The Windows XP-based thin clients will cost less than Windows XP Professional Edition but will offer the same management features and availability of a broad array of hardware drivers. The operating systems are being designed to run on low-end PCs that could be used for simple tasks such as data entry and as a way to access server-based applications, these people said.

Microsoft is developing the two releases under the "Eiger" and "Monch" code names, after two mountains in the Swiss Alps, said Microsoft enthusiast Steven Bink, who publishes the Bink.nu Microsoft news Web site and runs IT Solutions BV, an IT consultancy in Amsterdam.

Microsoft told select partners about its thin-client plans in January, said Brian Madden, a Washington-based independent technology analyst and author of several books on thin-client computing.

"The motivation for Microsoft is to get a true managed Windows platform on as many desktops as they can. Once they realized that this thin-client model is here to stay, they figured they might as well make an offering that can support SMS, WSUS, etc. to encourage as many people as possible to use these products," Madden said via e-mail.

Systems Management Server (SMS) and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) are Microsoft systems management and patching products.

With the thin clients, Microsoft would be competing with open-source products and potentially with partners such as Wyse Technology Inc. and Neoware Systems Inc., which sell thin clients based on XP Embedded and Windows CE.

Neoware, however, doesn't see Microsoft's move as increased competition, said spokeswoman Sharon O'Shea. "A thin-client version of Windows XP would be a natural product for Microsoft, given the growth of the thin-client market," she said in an e-mail message.

"A thin-client version of Windows XP would not be competitive with Neoware's products. In fact, we would likely benefit from its development as we could bundle it with our thin-client devices," O'Shea said, noting that Microsoft has created thin-client products in the past, including a thin-client version of Windows CE.

Madden said he believes the thin-client versions of Windows XP will likely be easier to use and less expensive than Windows XP Embedded. Essentially, the operating system releases will let users convert an old PC into a Windows manageable thin-client device, Madden said.

A thin client typically is a slim terminal computer that has little or no software installed and instead runs applications off of a central server, making it easier to manage. It's considered to be a low-cost alternative to the bulky desktop PC. Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java Desktop System, which includes Linux, has also been used for thin clients.

Both the Windows XP thin clients will run with 64MB of RAM, a 50MB hard disk drive and a Pentium-class processor, according a description of the products published by Bink this week.

Eiger is the simplest offering. Its features include a remote connection client, Internet Explorer, local and network printing, Office viewers, WSUS and support for SMS, according to the product description.

Monch has all the Eiger features, plus support for Windows Mobile devices, Windows image acquisition, wireless networking, virtual private networking and advanced Internet Protocol security, according to Bink.

"Companies that use server-based computing today could switch to these thin clients. And companies wanting to make the step to server-based computing will be able to do that more easily by using their current PCs with the thin XP client," said Bink, who first reported on the thin-client versions of Windows XP on his Web site.

But Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft Inc. in Kirkland, Wash., doesn't see why Microsoft would need special thin-client versions of XP. "I am not convinced that there is a hole in their product line right now," he said. "It sounds very much like what somebody could do with Windows XP Embedded."

Microsoft declined to comment.

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