12 September 2007

History of technology: Thin clients

I enjoy technology history, so this article in the NY Times caught my eye. You can also relate the quote below to my previous post on micropayments ...

In the world of information technology, the future often arrives as predicted but rarely on time. The big things that ignite new markets and change people’s behavior, like the personal computer and the Internet, are actually collections of related technologies rather than single breakthroughs — symphonies rather than solo performances.

The PC revolution was the crest of a long wave of advances in chip design and software. The Internet, through decades of incubation, exploded only after millions of people began using newly affordable PCs with faster communication links and souped-up browsers.

The Internet shook the business world, but about a decade later than forecast. A similarly late though potentially revolutionary trend may finally be getting its day.

A decade ago, the network computer — also called the thin-client computer — was promoted as a replacement for personal computers and desktop software. Thin clients have no hard drives to store desktop applications, like Microsoft’s Word or Excel, permanently. The leading supporters of the inexpensive, terminal-style machines were Microsoft’s archrivals at Oracle and Sun Microsystems.

The market never took off in the 1990s. But the vision of a decade ago now seems within reach. Years of progress in hardware, software and networking have enabled thin computers to mimic the user experience of PCs for most tasks. Evidence that thin computing may really be catching on came in July, when Hewlett-Packard announced it would buy Neoware, a thin-client maker. The $214 million deal sent a message: thin-client computing was a market that could not be ignored.

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