It’s like the 1990s again

When I started off in agency life at the end of the 90s, the future looked like a thin client. The promise of the internet meant that software no longer had to be on a PC, that the web allowed users to connect applications on a server. Either as HTML-based application interfaces; for instance web-based email or a Java-based application like ThinkFree Office – a productivity suite that provided much of the functionality of Microsoft Office.

At the time, Java could have been considered to have an edge because it was similar to well-known programming language C and many large organisations such as banks were already deploying ‘n-tier‘ applications. These were applications powered by computer servers that ran over the computer network deployed on thin clients or PCs emulating thin clients.

Sun Microsystems Sun Ray workstation

The future what Oracle called a network appliance and what Sun Microsystems called a JavaStation (and its successor the Sun Ray). And back then, this move towards thin clients reminded us of traditional mainframe computing or time-sharing applications running on mini-computers that were popular before Moore’s Law made personal computers viable.

The chief legacy of this time was that many enterprise software applications moved on to the web: Oracle applications operate inside of a web browser and do mySAP. Salesforce.com have pioneered software as a service

So why am I talking about what would count for ancient history in technology circles?

I guess it is because I was reminded the network appliance by the disclosures around Google’s Chrome OS plans. This has been coming for a while, there is now a great deal of web application developers out there. So it made sense to Apple kick off iPhone development with web applications, the Chumby used widgets utilising existing web services and Palm did the same with the WebOS which powers the Palm Pre.

Wired broadband is becoming ubiquitous (and even a legal right in some countries), combined with the rise of the web as a platform a la web 2.0 a thin client OS was a logical progression. The web was proving itself to be an ideal platform for a wealth of applications: Oddpost reinvented web email and made it even more interactive and responsive than most desktop email clients, JumpCut allowed simple video editing to take place via a drag-and-drop interface and Picnik is a worthy competitor to Adobe PhotoShop Elements.

Google feels that now is the time to resurrect the thin client device. However I don’t expect them to own this space exclusively. The Apple computing experience is now as much about the services that Apple provide as the Macintosh user interface and Microsoft is trying to have its cake and eat it with its caught-between-two-stools approach of Windows Azure.

The advantages touted by Google eerily mirrored those of earlier thin client offerings:

  • Near-instant boot up times because the device is so simple
  • Data is stored on the server, so you don’t have to worry if your computer crashes or breaks
  • Increased security, down to the simplicity of the device and the fact that adults are looking after your data in the server farm
  • Trouble can be easily fixed because all your valuable data sits on a server so the client operating system can be updated or replaced with no damage to the user data

Previous generations were eventually pushed out of the limelight by a lack of consumer adoption. Sun Ray terminals are generally used in large organisations attracted by the secure nature and smartcard access. Oracle’s network computer concept died a death, as did 3Com’s Audrey concept.

The big question is whether the goodwill and trust that the general public put in the Google brand will be enough to carry the day this time around. All you need is a timely incident like the recent Sidekick outage over at T-Mobile in the U.S. to stop thin computing in its tracks for at least another generation.

Photo courtesy of Sun Microsystems of a Sun Ray appliance.