With all the hype on the Dumb Terminal v3 and the death of the rich client, I thought I had put this issue to rest with my Tales of the $100 PC. It was unfortunate that many of the talkbacks were from people who didn't even bother to read the blog. What was really hilarious in some of the talkback were the accusations that I was some kind of first-world snob who had no sympathy for third-world children looking to get ahead. Having been born in Xinjiang China, the Chinese version of Siberia back in the 70s, I was almost rolling on the ground laughing. I could just imagine myself in that mud hut class room with temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius asking the school if we could have a $100 dumb terminal or computer when none of us even had text books. Heck, it would have been nice if we had a piece of glass to cover up the hole in the wall that we called a window or maybe even some coal to heat up the place. Ironically, I still managed to learn enough math in the first two grades to last me until the sixth grade in the US public schools even though we had no text books and had never heard of the word computer. While this was very funny, it didn't really surprise me the lengths that some people would go to make a point. But what did surprise me was this response from my colleague John Carroll (whose character and work I like and respect) about his answer to the $100 PC.
In that $100 PC blog, I had clearly demonstrated it was possible to have a relatively good performance PC for close to $100 mark and actually meet it on rare occasion with existing technology. The point of my $100 PC blog was that any dumb terminal (wannabe PC killer) would have to have so much in common with the PC for it to be useful that it would almost be the same price as the full blown PC but be severely crippled in independence and performance. The only catch in the $100 PC was that the monitor was not included, which might jack up the cost anywhere from $50 to $400 and higher depending on the quality of the display. Any display device you would need to add to the PC would also need to add to the dumb terminal. Most people in the office that I know still prefer to print out any material on paper for easy reading even if they had a 20" or larger monitor so the idea that some 8" screen on a PC killer is going to replace text books is ludicrous. The only cost saver would be the local storage device (the hard drive) which would only shave off $40 off the system and severely cripple the dumb terminal by making it completely reliant on the network and server infrastructure which by the way doesn't come cheap. The slowest modern desktop hard drive on the planet can easily sustain over 300 mbps which is probably better than most Internet data center connections.
In John Carroll's blog, John proposed the idea that you could carry a USB memory device that would contain its own bootable OS and application set. It immediately struck me that I would never use a device that I had to boot up even if the terminals at the airport were configured to boot from a USB device. Even if I can get past the fact that I'm not in the mood to pay good money to use a public kiosk, all of the kiosks already come with operating systems booted up. All they're really missing is my applications and my data with which I can easily carry in a 512 MB USB dongle that can be had for $30. The mistake that most rich clients make is that they all employ a hard drive installation process and they make a mess of the Windows registry which is even harder to uninstall cleanly. The other big mistake that many rich client applications make is that they dynamically link to DLL files in shared hard drive folders which may or may not be the right version tomorrow. But is this really how rich clients have to be?
The company SysInternals, which offers many indispensable utilities for the Windows operating system, writes all of their software in such a way that they do not need to be installed. You just download the zipped file and extract it anywhere you like and run the application as is. There is nothing that corrupts the Windows registry and you just delete the folder if you want to uninstall the application. Microsoft is also no stranger to this in their Macintosh Business Unit. Office for the Mac operating system just needs to be dragged on to the desktop and it's ready to use. Both these examples are written in good old C and C++ and they have no dependencies on slow and bloated Java Run-time Engines and they fire up so fast that you're up and running in two seconds.
Now if we couple this type of installation-free rich client with a $30 512 MB USB 2.0 storage device that spits out data at over 100 mbps, loading a crude and bloated browser based application on a "blazing" 6 mbps DSL link begins to look really stupid. All that is really needed to make this the killer application for the USB dongle is:
- A simple and secure rich email application that is capable of something like IMAP with SSL authentication or better yet use HTTPS tunneling so that it can bypass all firewalls and proxies.
- A simplified word processor that can read and write DOC files that are compatible with the rest of the world using MS Office, Word Perfect, or even Open Office.
- Something that can do basic Spreadsheets.
- Something that can do basic PowerPoint presentations.
All the user configuration goes on the same USB device and so does all of the synchronized IMAP email database and Office documents. Such a device could hang off your key chain and you would be able to just plug and compute on any Kiosk or computer you can find. Most importantly, this would be written in C or C++ so that it doesn't need a rarely existent Java Runtime Engine and that it doesn't need a Kiosk or PC with tons of RAM and system resources. C and C++ applications have very low memory footprints and typically uses very little processing power which makes them respond quickly the way that applications should.
If Microsoft is smart, they would offer a stripped down USB flash memory edition of Office and
bungle bundle it with the hardware, and there is plenty of room for other companies to fill this niche as well. If the Open Source crowd were smart, they would come out with their own simplified alternative MS Office killer application and use USB flash as the lightning fast software delivery platform instead of these fantasies about another rehash of the dumb terminal.