Dead in the Water

Columnists Mark Hall and Frank Hayes lock horns on the future of PCs. Part one: Wave of the Future, where Hall says it's time to end IT's time-sucking support of full-scale computers on desktops.

Well, that sure sounds appealing, doesn't it? Let's get rid of PCs, and things will be much better for IT. And it's true: Thin clients are easier to manage, secure and control. PCs just aren't what IT departments need.

So it should be pretty easy to persuade users to give up their PCs for thin clients, right?

Fat chance, Mark.

Users know what thin clients are. They're glorified terminals. And what's wrong with them isn't that they're simpler or slower or less fancy than PCs. It's not that thin lizzies won't run XP or Vista or Linux. The problem is that, with thin clients, everything depends on IT.

Frank Hayes
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Frank Hayes

Image Credit: Robbie MccLaran
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So what will happen when, say, a user brings in a $39 software package from CompUSA just after lunch that she wants installed so she can finish her sales presentation for a 4 o'clock customer meeting? On a PC, she (or the local power user) could install it in minutes. With thin clients, it would take days of testing before it could go live. That's once it gets to the front of the queue. If IT even agrees to queue it for installation at all.

Users know that. They know IT will say no first and ask questions later. To them, we're not the IT department. We're the "No" department.

We don't mean to be obstructionist. We're just trying to reduce the cost of managing technology by reducing the IT-related problems users have. And the easiest way to reduce users' IT problems is by cutting the choices users have and limiting what they can do.

So IT says no. That's why users don't talk to IT. And that's why they like their PCs, which let them pick their own software and install their own gadgets. With PCs, users don't have to ask IT's permission to use something they think will help them do their jobs better. That something may not be safe or stable or manageable. But if they don't ask, we can't say no.

Hall vs. Hayes
Remember, bringing in PCs to replace terminals was never IT's idea. Users forced desktop computers on us, starting more than 25 years ago when they smuggled in Apple IIs running something called a spreadsheet. Users have been forcing innovation on us ever since. IT has been fighting it all the way.

For users, thin clients are the ultimate IT "no." And if we try to force thin clients on users -- sneaking in at midnight to steal their flexible, innovation-oriented PCs and replace them with glorified terminals -- we'll have an all-out war on our hands. That's a war we'll lose. Users make money for the company. We don't.

So we have a choice. We can try to sell users on the idea of voluntarily swapping their PCs for thin clients, and good luck to anyone who wants to try.

Or we can forget about thin clients, recognize that, after a quarter of a century, we've lost the fight against desktop computers, and focus on a battle we can win: the battle against "no."

After all, what were we hoping to gain with thin clients? There would be just as many passwords to reset, broken keyboards and flaky mice to fix, and lost files to restore from tape. Mainly, we were hoping to keep users from doing things that threaten the security, stability and manageability of their own systems and everyone else's.

But we don't need absolute control over users for that. We just need to reduce the surprises.

To do that, we need users to talk to us before they make changes.

And to get them to do that, we have to stop saying no.

That doesn't mean we should always say yes. It means we take a position that, when users bring something in, we want to know about it, so that we can make sure it's safe, legal and effective as soon as possible. And until we've OK'd it, they're on their own for support and they're liable for any problems caused.

Sure, if it brings down the network, we're the ones who will catch hell. But that'll just give us motivation to check out that user-installed software in minutes or hours, not days or weeks.

Convincing users that IT isn't the No department won't mean every user will call the help desk before opening a virus-laden e-mail or downloading a worm-infested program. It'll help, but it's no panacea.

But then, Mark, neither are those brain-dead thin clients. And unlike thin clients, shaking that no-it-all reputation is something IT can actually hope to make a reality.

Part one: Mark Hall's Wave of the Future.

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