Everytime I write about the forthcoming fat client's fall from grace thanks to a new breed of software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, the technologists-in-denial club shows up in the comments section of our blogs with its tar and feathers to give me a lashing. As the comments section on a recent posting of mine shows (see Next for Sun, Google, Java: Walking papers for the fat client cartel?), there's also a handful of forward thinkers who realize how much sense it makes to pay less or nothing at all for someone else to worry about guaranteed headaches such as software upgrades, data backup and recovery, and system maintenance (a concept that, whether you want to admit it or not, has already been proven by SaaSers such as Google, Yahoo, and SalesForce.com).
By pay less, I don't mean just for the SaaS itself (some have argued that Salesforce.com actually costs more than competing on-premises salesforce automation solutions over the long run). I'm also including the TCO of that system sitting in front of you, which is more expensive to you or your company over the long run than most realize. Not to mention the stuff that's hard to quantify. I was reminded of that "stuff" yesterday when, in the middle of writing a blog on whether Research in Motion may have lost it's edge, my Windows XP-based Thinkpad T42, which has been behaving erratically as of late, very matter of factly switched to a blue screen with white characters that informed me that my system had experienced a catastrophic error. Long time Windows users will recognize this as the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD).
It's been a while since a system of mine has BSODed and I'm not sure what I might have done to incur such wrath. Here at ZDNet, our blogs are based on Wordpress -- a blogging solution that includes a browser-based blog authoring and editing utility that's little more than a Web form with a few buttons like "Save" and "Publish." My blog entry was about halfway complete at the time and it had been about 15 minutes since I last pressed the Save button (my fault.. I was breaking the cardinal "save and save often" rule). The shock of losing that much work turned to horror when the system would not reboot. I immediately began to think of all the files I may have irrecoverably lost since I last backed my system up -- files like my notes from yesterday morning's interview with IBM BladeCenter VP Douglas Balog.
After removing the battery, disconnecting the plug, getting a cup of coffee, and cursing repeatedly, the system finally booted (I think the coffee or the cursing is what did it) and before doing anything else, I backed up 8 GB of data to a USB-based external hard drive. Calculating the cost of an event like that, particularly if the system doesn't reboot (which happens too often), is like assigning a dollar figure for pain and suffering in a wrongful death civil suit. No amount of cost-assignment can really make you feel better, motivate you to keep working, or make up for all that lost productivity. It just doesn't work that way.
To the extent that I lost 15 minutes of work in WordPress, the experience is a reminder of everything that's wrong with many implementations of thin-client computing. But it also represents everything that's right. I may have lost some of the work I was doing in WordPress. But looking back on the hundreds of documents that I've created in that system (documents that contribute to my employer's bottom line), I didn't need a special or proprietary thick client to create them (and the thin client I could be using can't catch viruses), they're all still there, it's not my job to keep that system going or backed up, and when the software gets updated (not by me), none of my technology gets destabilized as a result. Meanwhile, if I had been unable to reboot my BSODed notebook, a lot would have been lost. More than I care to think about. I know. Shame on me for not backing up more frequently. But can't that be someone else's problem at no extra cost to me?
Naysayers cite two major drawbacks in such thin client thinking. For one, they argue, even with faux thick client technologies like AJAX, thin clients will never match even the minimum amount of functionality that most people look for in thick solutions like Office and Windows. Tell that to the on-line word processing folks at Writely.com or gOffice.com. CRN's Edward Moltzen has the scoop on Writely, and gOffice's home page tells an interesting story with phrases like "Word Processing," "Desktop Publishing," "Import any text," "Limitless storage" (I'll bet they take care of backing it up too), "PDF document files" (thanks to PDF's openness relative to Microsoft Office XML Reference Schema), "Presentations," and "Spreadsheets" (the last two are clearly statements of intention since they're not activated yet). Oh yeah, the upper right hand corner of gOffice.com's Web page says Free Web Office Suite.
Mash these Web office apps up with other cloud-based services like Google's GMail for e-mailing/routing and JotSpot's Wikis for collaborating on document editing -- throw in a common document DNA like OpenDocument that they can all use for frictionless interoperation -- and things start to get interesting. If everything (the document editing, the formatting, the storage, the e-mailing, etc.) is done out there on the Net in "the cloud" (and I'm finding that more and more of my personal computing is done this way), thick clients start to look so, well, so yesterday. Unless of course you're doing something that requires thick clients -- like Photoshop and games. We'll cut that group some slack.
The other major drawback cited by naysayers -- and I agree that it's a biggie -- is what to do when you're not connected to the cloud. Lack of cloud access is problematic for two reasons and can occur in a variety of situations. Reason No. 1 is that if all your data is on the Net and you can't get to the Net, then you can't get to your data. Reason No. 2 is that if you can't get to your data, then you probably can't get to the services you were using to create, edit and route that data. You can cut yourself off from the cloud in several ways. You can get on an airplane. Or, you can leave the coverage zone of your WiFi and/or wireless broadband services. Your wireless or wireline services can suffer outages. While coverage is improving (geographically expanding while also getting more reliable), that's simply not good enough for those of us who, when we're not connected, we're not working.
This problem will be solved. I don't know how. But picture a world where, instead of carrying a notebook computer with you everywhere you go, and instead of having power-drinking desktops in every corner of your house, all you have is a USB key that you take from one dirt cheap thin client to another. On that key is not just all of your personal data (that is stored in the cloud but replicated to your USB key for offline usage), but perhaps a small Web server and some applications, both of which are thin-client friendly. Some stuff for authentication too. Everything's encrypted.
There are implications in terms of what thin client technology you'll find in the seatbacks of planes and trains or where ever you may find yourself cut off from the cloud. They'll need USB ports and they'll have to know what to do when a USB key is inserted into them. Perhaps these terminals will all have runtimes for Java and Flash and all you'll need on your USB key are applications -- word processing or otherwise -- that are written for those runtimes. Or maybe the runtimes are on the USB key itself -- in the same way that there's a tiny Java Virtual Machine on JavaCards. And maybe the USB key has an SD slot and it's the SD card that has everything on it. If you want, you can pop that SD card out of the USB key and into the SD I/O slot on your PDA.
We're closer than you think to a world where a lot of this gets worked out. And clearly, there are some forward thinkers who see it coming and who are positioning themselves to be players in the new world order. Still not convinced? Just read the already infamous Bill-Ray memos. With most of its eggs in the thick client basket, Microsoft is clearly worried. So much so that four days after Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie started marshaling Microsoft's forces with his Oct 28 Internet Services Disruption memo, he and Bill Gates were on stage sketching out part of the vision. Translation: You worker bees get busy ASAP while we make a few acquisitions and announcements that should keep customers and investors from getting spooked. In Web 1.0, Microsoft saw this movie once already. So, it knows the drill. But that doesn't change the reality that's only a few breakthroughs away.