The Network Computer (NC) is dead – long live the thin client! That is the cry now that major vendors have halted their development of software and operating systems for the NC.
Sun Microsystems and IBM have canned the JavaOS for Business operating system (see Computing 26 August) , while IBM subsidiary Lotus is reported to have ceased development of eSuite, its Java-based desktop suite. Both used Java downloaded to the client.
The NC had been hailed as an alternative to the PC, but all is not lost. Instead, the thin-client model of computing, where applications are executed on the server instead of the desktop, is gaining ground.
This week saw iForum 99, the US thin client conference hosted by thin client software vendor Citrix. Delegates included representatives from Novell and Compaq, who talked up the future of server-based computing, while Citrix announced it now has more than 10 million users of its thin-client software.
And Sun Microsystems last week dug deeper into the camp of server-based computing with the acquisition of Star Division, maker of the browser-based StarOffice suite of office products.
Why has server-based computing succeeded where Java on the client has failed? One reason is infrastructure and manageability.
JavaOS for Business and eSuite were originally aimed at the NC. But few IT departments were prepared to rip out their PCs in favour of NCs. Adding NCs to the existing infrastructure meant IT departments had to manage a new set of hardware. The result: poor sales of the NC meant poor take-up of the software for those NCs.
Ovum senior consultant Gary Barnett says users want Java on the server so they don't have to worry about the desktop: if the companies he speaks to want applications on the client side, they want Microsoft Office.
“The NC had a tough time because lots of outrageous promises were made on its behalf. Whether we like it or not, Microsoft Office is still a de facto standard, and it won't be toppled by anything that's less than compelling, and that includes eSuite,” says Barnett.
A second problem with client-based Java is portability of applications. Barnett says one major European car manufacturer tried to write a Java-based client application, but abandoned it when the only stable client turned out to be its Windows based PCs.
“We have encountered problems with Java's portability: our clients wrote client-side Java applications, then found they couldn't get them to run on all Java workstations,” he says.
ICA in the frame
Server-based computing has so far avoided such problems. A growing number of companies are now adopting Citrix WinFrame or its cousin, Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server. (see Network News 8 September)
WinFrame and Terminal Server are based on Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) standards, which allow a thin client to access client sessions – whether Windows or Java-based – that are running on a central server.
IT departments have the advantage of being able to run their existing software (such as Microsoft Office, or Oracle Financials in the case of retailer Homebase) on top of the ICA protocol without having to buy a new and relatively untried system.
“If customers have made investments in Windows applications, ICA clients can provide access to those applications,” says Jane Rimmer, director of marketing for Citrix in northern Europe. She claims that Citrix technology will be the 'cornerstone' of the growing application service provider market, where applications are rented online instead of installed.
Bloor senior research analyst Jon Collins says adoption of the Citrix model of thin client computing has accelerated with the increased presence of Windows NT.
“Lots of implementations we see in the City show that Citrix has a good model for a thin client. Initially it was held back by the immaturity of the Terminal Server software, but that has stabilised now,” he says.
Another problem for JavaOS and eSuite was the sheer development effort. Collins says the problem for IBM, Sun and Lotus was development cash. “It's just a pure investment issue,” he says. “Even companies such as IBM and Sun have to concentrate their efforts.”
Easy does it
So despite the NC's recent demise, that other alternative to the PC, thin client computing, is far from dead.
Java on the client and the NC proved too new and too unreliable for users, and in many cases simply increased an organisation's workload. But server-based computing has allowed people to re-use familiar applications and offers easy management from the IT department's point of view. Vive la révolution.
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