The network PC is dead--or, at least, in a coma. Long live the thin client.
Certainly that's the hope of the long-suffering hardware and software manufacturers that are finally starting to get some traction under the idea that most computing power should be housed on a central server and accessed by "thin" networked computers (or "clients")--units similar to the PCs most people use but lacking the processing power to handle applications on their own--as opposed to the more familiar Windows/Intel-based desktops.
Thin-client providers include big-name brands, such as Data General, IBM, Oracle, Sun, Televideo, Unisys and Wyse--as well as younger players like Citrix Systems and Network Computing Devices (NCD), whose industry influence seems out of proportion to their size. These companies' thin-client networks are a substantial outgrowth of a type of consumer-oriented computer introduced a few years ago to thwart the Wintel duopoly. Those inexpensive workstations had little processing power or onboard software and used your garden-variety Web browser (preferably Netscape's) to retrieve small Java-based applications off the Web as needed.
This new idea foundered among consumers when companies didn't produce the applications for it, Java applets, as quickly as the hype suggested and the bottom fell out from under the prices of "real" PCs. But business users warmed to the concept when they discovered they could use Citrix's Winframe or Microsoft's Windows NT Server 4.0 Terminal Server Edition software to run Windows applications off LAN and Web servers. Sales of thin clients took off in 1999, and IT research firm IDC expects them to increase tenfold to more than 6 million annually by 2003.
Depending on the hardware, thin-client price tags can range from a few hundred dollars less to a few hundred dollars more than a budget Wintel PC. But getting to the real value of thin clients is a little more complicated than simply comparing price tags.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.