Thin clients were firmly in the spotlight at the Internet World show in Los Angeles yesterday, as Microsoft prepared the ground for the launch of Windows Terminal Server (formerly known as Hydra).
And analysts are starting to add weight to the view that Windows based thin clients may be starting, already, to win the war against the alternative network computer model backed by the Java/server-centric lobby such as Sun.
The beta II release of the product, which provides a multiuser server for thin clients, was announced, and Microsoft lined up support from hardware vendors and customers. One of these was NCD - in the news last week for devising the reference platform for Intel's Lean Client design, and now announcing Thinstar, the first machine to conform to Microsoft's Windows Based Terminal design.
Meanwhile, Citrix introduced the second beta release of its WTS add-on, pICAsso.
The first beta version of Hydra was rolled out at Comdex/Fall in November, where thin client vendors such as NCD, Wyse and Boundless voiced their support for the concept. But at Internet World, Microsoft is demonstrating a more advanced release and putting flesh on the bones, as well as garnering more vendor support.
Microsoft has been discussing Windows Terminal Server and Windows Based Terminals for about a year. Together with the NetPC thin client design and Zero Administration Windows, they form the cornerstones of the giant's response to the network computer initiative of the Java/server camp led by Sun and Netscape.
At the server end, Microsoft is basing its approach to thin client computing on Citrix? Winframe technology, a multiuser layer on top of Windows NT. This software is the basis of Windows Terminal Server and is expected to ship in the second quarter. At the client side, Microsoft is proposing devices that run the Windows CE operating system and a protocol called RDP (formerly named T.Share).
At Internet World, WTS received the backing of server vendors Unisys, Axil and Data General. Microsoft also listed a number of customers that will deploy the WTS beta in pilot projects. These include Federal Express and Sony Electronics. Microsoft adds that it is in negotiations with some customers about projects that involve up to 40,000 terminals.
Microsoft said the second beta of WTS offers better performance and better support for Windows applications.
John Frederiksen, group product manager for WTS, said that WBT will support ?the majority? of 16-bit and 32-bit Windows applications and claimed that Office 95 and Office 97 now install seamlessly on top of beta II. Based on feedback from beta testers, Microsoft now says it expects 90 per cent of all Windows applications to run on WBT ?out of the box?. A further nine per cent will need ?some tweaking?, he said.
Frederiksen also said that WTS will support 15-25 concurrent users on one processor, allowing up to 100 users on a four-CPU server.
There will be two ways of accessing WBT: using Microsoft?s own protocol, RDP, or Citrix? ICA protocol. But to access WBT with ICA, users will have to purchase Citrix pICAsso, an add-on to WBT. RDP only runs on Windows platforms. ICA will be positioned as the protocol of choice for accessing Windows applications from non-Windows platforms such as Macintoshes, Unix workstations and Java based NCs.
Microsoft has not announced pricing or packaging for WBT. But pricing is expected to be per-seat, with user licences for Windows clients being cheaper than those for non-Windows clients.
Citrix introduced the second beta of pICAsso at Internet World, and also announced pricing for upgrades from Winframe to pICAsso. Migrating a Winframe server to pICAsso will cost $1,495, not including the price of WTS.
Besides the support of non-Windows clients, pICAsso will also offer a number of other features not yet found in WBT, such as administrative tools and support for audio. It includes a load balancing tool that allows the grouping of multiple WTS servers into a 'server farm' serving large numbers of users.
Also at Internet World, NCD rolled out what it said is the first commercially available Windows CE based thin client, the Thinstar. It will ship with support for both ICA and the current beta of RDP ? requiring a software update when RDP is finalised. NCD said it intends to sell the devices to customers who are deploying WBT beta II in pilot projects. A 'five-pack' of five Thinstar clients, will resell for $4,695. In recent months, the concept of Windows-based terminals has been gaining momentum, say analysts ? partly because of market disappointment with network computers.
Greg Blatnik, an analyst with Zona Research, said: ?We think there?s a group of different kinds of thin client devices. WBTs are one, and what people are calling network computers are another. And there are several other types that will exist in the marketplace. We think that all these devices will probably coexist. But there?s going to be a lot of positioning and rhetoric and battle for customer attention by companies that either have a vested interest in one style of computing or another, or companies that have put all chips on one type of client.?
Blatnik thinks the WBTs' support for Windows applications might tip the scale to its advantage. ?What it would seem to us, based on our research - and we?ve talked to customers for many years about these various types of products - is that customers very much want to have access to Windows applications.
He does not believe in the Java only approach. "That?s just a given, it?s a fact of life and its hard to ignore. And anyone who ignores it has, I think, put their head in the sand. And conversely, any product that is based solely on a Java application environment, we think, is going to see very limited interest."
Eileen O?Brien, an analyst with IDC, said she expects WBTs to outsell NCs in the long run. ?[NCs] have had a slow start, and part of the reason for that is that the NC premise is based on Java, which is still something new.?
She added that WBTs, because of their support for Windows applications and their dependence on NT Server, appear to many customers as a safer bet. According to as-yet unpublished IDC data, Windows Based Terminals could in a few years account for up to 10 per cent of desktop sales.
Tier one PC server vendors such as Compaq, IBM and HP have not yet spoken out in favour of the concept, though IBM has licensed the ICA technology for use in its Network Station NCs. But Greg Blatnik thinks this will soon change. ?I?m willing to bet that at least a couple of the companies that sell Windows NT Servers will offer WBTs. They may not manufacture them themselves, but it simply makes sense and they?ll see their customers ask for it.? (The full version is in the analysis section)
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