Google and Microsoft Announcements Suggest a Thin Client Future

by Chris Howard Jul 15, 2009

On June 14, 2005, I wrote an article proposing over a future filled with thin client technology. Reader response was negative, generally suggesting thin-client would come to nothing and that people wouldn't trust their personal files to the internet. But recent announcements by Google and Microsoft have renewed my expectation of a thin-client future, a future where you won't need a powerful computer, as the applications will be delivered over the web to your browser (like Google Docs) and all the processing is done on the host server.

Also, recently I had an interview with a manufacturing come and was pleasantly surprised to find it ran thin-client technology. And a few weeks before that I eavesdropped a conversation in my local cafe of three executive types, and one of them pulled out a thin-client terminal and told his peers it was the way of the future.

In the enterprise, thin client is still alive and kicking, and still growing.

Google Chrome OS will kick off the push to get thin-client into the home and Microsoft wasted no time announcing it was getting on that train too.

I am still a netbook skeptic but Google's approach undermines my resolve a little. The big problem with netbook marketing of the last 12 months has been its portrayal as a desktop (and/or laptop) computer. This is why demand has grown for larger and larger screens on netbooks. Initially netbooks were 7", now they are as large as 12", which is defeating the whole philosophy of netbooks.

Conversely, the iPhone has seen massive success as an internet device - despite its tiny screen - which suggests people would be quit happy with small screens on their internet device. So a 7" netbook screen was a good size. They just needed a different interface.

Google's entry into netbooks reclaims the netbook as an internet device. Being essentially a thin-client device, it by its nature defines expectations. There can't be any confusion about what it can and can't run. Salesmen won't be able to mislead you into thinking it can replace your laptop or desktop needs.

I still wouldn't get one because I'm exceptionally happy with my iPhone. It does for me most of what I would use a netbook for. And for those tasks the iPhone can't perform, I have the MacBook.

But iPhones are only 20% of the smartphone market, and therefore a small part of the entire mobile phone market. Therefore, many of the non-smartphoners could well take to the Google netbook when looking for an internet device.

And this would be the beginning of the move of the thin-client concept into the consumer market.

It's only been four years since my article but things have changed so much. Online storage has boomed (eg DropBox), Google has entered the web-app space (which again store your docs online), social networking has taken off, and people are trusting the internet more than ever.

That article makes interesting reading now. Mostly I think I was getting it right. However, I did predict Microsoft would be the greatest beneficiary of thin-client. But it seems Google is trying to overtake it. Which might explain Microsoft's announcement "that Office Web applications will be available ... through Windows Live, where more than 400 million consumers will have access to Office Web applications at no cost". Not that I'm suggesting it was an announcement in reaction to Google's Chrome OS.

Apple has also dabbled a bit in a future of thin clients delivering web based apps. It has that currently only allows you to share your iWork files online and have others annotate them. It's not hard to imagine Apple working on online version of iWork that allows editing.

It also stuck its toe in the water with the first iPhone, which ran web-based apps. But without any serious apps from Apple itself to support the concept, web-based apps on the iPhone floundered and sunk. Thereafter Apple brought out the iPhone SDK and the app store and things went a little nuts.

Thin-client won't be for everyone immediately. Netbooks will be the beginning as they are ideally suited, being firstly web devices. But as the internet evolves, you'll see more and more desktop functionality migrated to web based apps, until one day you'll realise it's the way you mostly work.

Google and Microsoft's announcements serve to confirm thin-client is coming to a consumer near you.


  • Give me the form factor of the iPhone/iPod Touch with the same/similar interface and OS ( iPhone OS or Mac OS X ), ability to use bluetooth keyboard and mouse and I will be the first to give up my desktop/laptop.

    Khürt Williams had this to say on Jul 15, 2009 Posts: 45
  • Just because Google and Microsoft offer the products doesn’t mean they will be a success: remember MS Bob?

    Outside of the USA, people are very protective of their privacy, hence the debate in the UK over ID cards - people are outraged at the idea of having any kind of ID card which a law enforcement officer can request to see. In the USA, the idea of being outraged when everybody carries a driver’s license is completely alien. European countries have data protection laws and they are quite strict. In the US, once you give your data to a company/bank/whatever it seems they can do what they like with it.

    Perhaps in the US the idea of having your docs on a MS server is not upsetting, but I don’t see it flying in Europe.

    I don’t see

    evilcat had this to say on Jul 15, 2009 Posts: 66
  • Privacy issues aside, cloud ‘computing’ is absurd, and will never stick. Of course, everybody likes to have internet access on the go (ex: the iphone’s and netbooks’ success), but that’s pretty much it. For any other ‘computing’ tasks, people will stick to their main computer.

    not happening

    ediediedi had this to say on Jul 16, 2009 Posts: 6
  • Microsoft was quick to slap back, though. Company officials responded within hours by posting an email from a few months ago in which a Google executive turns down a Microsoft offer to bid on the Novell patents jointly.

    Yochanan Berkowitz

    Ana had this to say on Aug 16, 2011 Posts: 76
  • I read internet security news everyday and let me tell you that this thin client application was somehow expected because the volume of information is growing very rapidly and you can’t cope with that. At some point we will need some powerful servers that are able to do that for us.

    IBMdude had this to say on Aug 23, 2011 Posts: 50
  • I have no idea about that one.

    Alpina had this to say on Aug 27, 2011 Posts: 154
  • Finally, thin clients let organizations centrally manage the software packages deployed throughout the network and avoid unauthorized installations of unlicensed programs. java programmer

    Jake Kear had this to say on Sep 08, 2011 Posts: 6
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