Wave of the Future

Columnists Mark Hall and Frank Hayes lock horns on the future of PCs. Don't miss Frank's rebuttal: Dead in the Water.

Poor misguided Frank. Still dedicated to a dusty strategy to upgrade to Longhorn -- oops, Vista.

Frank, Frank, Frank, you should know that rolling out fat operating system upgrades on expensive desktop PCs was cutting edge in the 20th century, but it's not a process you want to continue to shackle your company with in this century.

What you really want to do is find every device running a PC operating system and eliminate all the ones you possibly can. It's time to end IT's time-sucking support of full-scale computers on desktops throughout the organization.

Mark Hall

Mark Hall

Image Credit: Robbie MccLaran

We all know why PCs became so successful. They did things for knowledge workers faster and easier than IT was able to deliver them. But that's no longer the case. IT can quickly create easy-to-use, intuitive, browser-based applications as fast as ISVs can deliver new applications for bulky PCs (no -- way faster). What's more, with terminal services from Microsoft or Citrix, you can continue to deliver those chubby desktop applications like Microsoft Office that have encouraged end users to cling to their desktop machines.

So, yes, I'm suggesting that you replace as many of your desktop machines as possible with thin clients. Many of you are already ahead of me on this. IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell told me that he doubled his forecast of thin-client sales for 2005, so that he now expects the growth rate for the inexpensive devices to be 46% over 2004. And that's before taking into account legislation in Japan that makes it illegal to store customer data on desktop computers, a move that will only accelerate thin-client growth.

He also remarked that replacing PCs with thin clients is a strategy that "is just starting to resonate" with IT managers. That means today's 46% growth is only going to get bigger in the years ahead. Believe me, you won't be alone in tossing out PCs and substituting them with thin clients.

Hall vs. Hayes

Today's thin clients aren't the dull devices of old. They're snazzy machines that range from low-end units that cost less than $200 to cool state-of-the-art systems that can run video applications as fast as anything from Dell. And in the near future, we'll be seeing mobile thin clients and specialized hardened thin clients for hazardous working areas, among other new designs.

The advantages to IT are obvious. Thin clients are much easier to manage. Sending techs out to troubleshoot someone's desktop machine will become a thing of the past. And all those tools you use to monitor and support PCs -- well, you'll be saving a bundle when you don't have to update them.

The biggest blessing from dumping most of your desktops will come from immediately improving your company's security. No more viruses or worms spreading from end users stupidly clicking on infected e-mails. No more running around with your hair on fire when your network is hosed by a zero-day virus. No more having to regularly update the security on every single machine with service packs, antivirus software and antispyware programs. If you can keep your server secure, you can keep your company's data safe.

Beyond Thin

Of course, Frank, not every PC can be replaced. I'll grant you that. Not yet. But I'm betting most can be swapped out for thin clients without any significant problems. Certainly fewer and smaller problems than you'll have upgrading to Longhorn -- oops again! I mean Vista.

Mobile laptop users will have the strongest argument in support of a Longh ... uh, Vista refresh. But I'm wagering many of your road warriors don't really need laptops while traveling -- except for playing Solitaire while waiting for their planes to board. Windows CE or Palm devices will probably give most working travelers what they need, such as access to e-mail, the Web and applications. Giving most end users laptops is overkill. Worse, it's dangerous overkill when they get back to the office and start spreading that nifty new worm they picked up on the road.

While I don't believe that PC operating systems will die out completely, I do believe they have outlived their usefulness to IT. And now is the time to begin the shift away from them inside corporations.

Frank's rebuttal: Dead in the Water, where he says you'll have all-out war on your hands if you try to replace PCs with thin clients.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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