2002: The year of guessing wildly

It's February already, so time's running out for declarations along the lines of "2002 will the year of [fill in the blank]". Last week I had one go at it, saying wireless LANs would be big. This week I'm having a couple of other guesses.

It’s February already, so time’s running out for declarations along the lines of “2002 will the year of [fill in the blank]”.

Last week I had one go at it, saying wireless LANs would be big. This week I’m having a couple of other guesses at what might complete the sentence.

Thin clients will be huge. Well, quite clearly, that doesn’t make any sense – how can thin be big? Let me rephrase it: server-based computing will continue its better-than-average growth.

Putting it that way will be much more to the liking of the Australia and New Zealand head of Citrix, Nabeel Youakim, who was crowing last week at his company’s “better than 50%” sales growth in New Zealand, double its worldwide growth rate. Fifty percent of what, you’re probably wondering. I wondered myself, but Youakim wasn’t letting on.

“In relative terms, New Zealand’s a good market for us,” he says. Then let’s just say Citrix made $1.55 here last year, after selling $1 worth of its software the year before … In fact, it probably made a bit more than that, since it’s in the process of adding two staff to the one who’s occupied the New Zealand office for the past couple of year.

Aside from revenue reticence, Youakim also takes issue with the thin client label, certainly as applied to Citrix. Citrix would like to think of itself as THE server-based software company. It makes software – principally MetaFrame -- that enables a range of devices to access applications running on – typically – a Windows server. Youakim points out that those devices can be thick or thin (that is, a fully featured desktop machine running the Mac OS or Unix or Linux or Windows, or a dumb-ish terminal of some sort). So it’s a fair point.

His point also serves to separate the two appealing cost equations that help make this an increasingly popular system architecture. Thin client-server-based computing catches the eye of IT bosses because it offers savings both in hardware and system management. According to Citrix, while the cost of buying new thin clients might be 20% less than that of fully featured PCs, the saving from centralising applications on server farms is “50%-plus” over decentralised control, in which each desktop user has the opportunity to configure (or disfigure) their machine at will. Computerworld columnist Jim Swanson has done the maths for the IT department he runs and, fully persuaded of the benefits, is set to place an an order with Citrix.

Market researcher International Data Corporation (IDC) sticks by the thin client label when it studies this sector of the market and in December it published a report on how the technology’s doing in Australia. It says the market is only in its infancy (Citrix’s Australian business grew by 40% in 2001), but in the same breath says thin client computing’s been around for as long as computing itself. It’s picking accelerating uptake, helped by heightened concerns about security, for one thing (viruses and hackers are more easily thwarted when applications reside on a server), and by increasing use of application service providers (ASPs). IDC hasn’t analysed the New Zealand scene, saying there has never been any interest in the data. That, presumably, means the market’s not even out of the womb yet. But, says IDC, there are indications this year of vendor demand for thin client market intelligence, so a study might be initiated. I take that as a sign of critical mass being reached.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen, though, to Sir Gil Simpson, who several years ago bet his Christchurch-based company, Aoraki, on the Jade thin client development environment. After a five-year transformation, the company now makes all its money from Jade and has renamed itself Jade Software, in preparation for floating on the stock exchange. As his actions loudly proclaim, Simpson is a total believer in the thin client-server-based computing model, and he expects the rest of the computing world to eventually come around to that view.

There are powerful interests against the idea, of course. One is Intel, which, understandably, would like every desktop to be populated by a fully featured PC with one of its chips inside rather than a terminal with someone else’s less muscular processor.

In the words of Intel’s chief “e-strategist”, Chris Thomas, uttered last month, thin clients "are a tethered architecture”; they force organisations to work in certain way, and don't allow applications to scale very easily. "The server-centric model is not a healthy architecture for a horizontal environment." Well, he would say that.

Much more to Intel’s liking as a model of future computing is web services, based on powerful client devices (running Intel processors, thanks very much). Which, incidentally, is my other guess for what 2002 will be the year of.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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