Thin client devices: more or less relevant in the future?

It's 2009. Are we still talking about whether thin client devices will be relevant in the future?

It's 2009. Are we still talking about whether thin client devices will be relevant in the future?


(As in "yep, we're talking about it," not saying "yep, they'll be relevant.")

To be fair, I think the conversation is different this time around. (Or at least it can be said that the specific aspects of the conversation is different.) For example, in past years, we'd talk about things like "should you buy a thin client device?" versus "should you buy a cheap PC and lock it down and use it like the thin client?" But in both cases, you're still talking about a "thin client" on the desktop, making your answer "yes, [some form of] thin clients will be relevant in the future." But the larger trends in desktop virtualization might change that.

In the past, thin client devices were used for server-based computing. As I wrote earlier this week, server-based computing traditionally offered four benefits: Management, Access, Performance, and Security. And since thin client devices were traditionally nothing more than dumb portals into server-based computing, one could argue that thin client devices offered the same four benefits.

So why isn't every single client device in the world a thin client? Well right off the bat, thin clients can't be used offline, so pretty much any laptop that leaves a building can't be a thin client. But what about every single desktop computer? Couldn't every single corporate desktop in the world be replaced with a thin client?

Today the answer is no, because (1) not all applications are server-based computing compatible, and (2) not every company can make terminal server or VDI work for their back-end. However, I've somewhat famously been quoted in the past saying that "in the future, EVERY desktop device could become a thin client." This is true if you believe my VDI 2010 vision, because key parts of that are (1) remote display protocols--especially over a LAN--will be perfect, and (2) management of the back-end will be layered and simple. So in that version of the future, yes, every LAN-connected device could become a thin client.

But there's a huge irony there. If you believe the 2010 VDI vision, then you believe that while every LAN-connected device could become a thin client, no LAN-connected device would have to become a thin client.

Going back to the four reasons people use server-based computing today (Management, Access, Performance, and Security), if you're talking about LAN-connected devices in June 2010, you don't need SBC for management since we can run a managed Windows instance locally. And since we're talking about LAN-connected devices, the access, performance, and security become less important.

This means that in June 2010, we'll still be having the conversation about "Should I buy a thin client?" versus "Should I buy a cheap PC?" But the "cheap PC" option will change from today's "Cheap PC for the purpose of locking it down to use as a thin client" into 2010's "cheap PC for the purpose of running a client hypervisor and a fully managed, layered, dynamically-composed Windows instance."

Of course there will always be specific use cases for server-based computing, and within the walls of every corporation the "thin client versus PC" conversation will be hashed out around the specific needs of that company. But at the macro level, do you think net sales of thin clients will increase (because more people can use them) or decrease (because fewer people have to) in the future?

One final note: I fully recognize that a thin client can have enough horsepower to run a client hypervisor and Windows locally, and that thin client devices are not only for server-based computing. But in that use case, how is a thin client different than a lightweight managed device? Is a netbook a thin client? Is a cheap PC with V-Pro a thin client? Do we just define it by what Wyse makes versus what Lenovo makes?



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