Home PCs need thinning out

Security, reliability and usability are desperately lacking in unmanaged PCs. Disaster - or business opportunity?
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

For the past month, I've been helping my parents get broadband. Their rural exchange is finally enabled, and I've guided them through the joys of choosing supplier, speed of capped or uncapped service, modems, routers and wireless networking. There'll be a short pause while BT comes up with a date when the planets are in the right conjunction and the gnomes in the exchanges can press the button. Then I turn up, plug in, configure and test. Then comes the great dance of the patches, the ritual summoning of the Firefox, a sprinkling of anti-malware packages, a spot of remote management magic -- and I can steal softly away until something goes wrong. I give it a week.

I'd guess that most ZDNet UK readers know this phenomenon, which for the sake of argument I'll call FAFSS -- Friends And Family Support Syndrome. The best you can say about it is that it brings people together and the grateful recipients generally supply beer, but it masks a very serious problem. For those who don't have FAFSS-qualified expertise on tap and can't afford £40 an hour for decent support, there's no alternative to going it alone. The result is endless frustration for the users, and zombie armies, worldwide worm farms and endless misery for everyone else. Computers that don't work properly are one thing: computers that don't work properly and are 150 milliseconds away from yours quite another.

You may have read my colleague Andrew Donoghue's report on the unwillingness of ISPs to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their customers. This is scandalous. Even if you're buying managed connectivity for a hundred thousand seats you shouldn't be buying your bits from an ISP that is careless about all its customers. It's like buying fresh water from a company that lets tons of sewerage slosh around in the pipework next to the purification plant.

There is a solution, and here's the second scandal -- it has the potential to be very profitable, not least for the ISPs. Yet nobody's talking about it: you can scan the literature of the industry sector concerned as much as you like and you'll get nowhere. The magic phrase: thin client in the home. With broadband and ultra-cheap high performance processors, the time is right for domestic managed systems, where the user buys not just a connection but a complete environment.

History is on its side. People love IT appliances. Amstrad knew this in the 80s when it made millions of word processors that benefited from the extreme cheapness of outdated 8-bit PC technology in disguise. Personal video recorders? Undercover PCs that will still be selling by the bucketload when media centre PCs are sitting just beneath the Ford Edsel in the business school textbooks of the future. So what's wrong with PCs disguised as working, useful, reliable, Internet enabled devices?

The eternal problem is that PCs are general purpose machines. They can do everything -- usually far more than you want and in ways that defy explanation. Thin clients don't remove that capability but they change the rules: they can do everything that their host server permits. At which point, the savvy service provider can put the kibosh on all the evils of the undomesticated home computer. Every single sin that besets the unmanaged PC -- unpatched operating systems, malware, lost data, incompatible applications, incorrect drivers, spam and general idiocy -- can be cured or at the least dramatically curtailed. With ninety percent of helpdesk calls thus removed, proper human support would even be possible.

What would such a service look like? A good model is the mobile phone industry: heavily discounted or free client hardware, a monthly flat-rate charge for connectivity and a variety of services available at a range of prices from free to plumptious. You'd want standard productivity software, email and Web software thrown in: the crucial difference with business thin client would be good multimedia support. People will want to plug their digital cameras in -- there'll have to be lots of storage -- and managing how they can access new software will take some ingenuity. Games? Why not. The whole games industry is edging towards thin client, with consoles becoming exceptionally well-endowed terminals hooked into massive multiplayer environments. That fits easily into the model of well-managed processor farms.

Most ZDNet UK readers wouldn't want to subscribe. I wouldn't. But if such a service was available at a reasonable premium over vanilla broadband access, I'd be selling it as hard as I could to everyone who doesn't want to be -- shouldn't have to be -- bothered with the swamp of monsters that is home computing these days. The appeal to IT departments should be obvious. As should the appeal to service providers: they can afford to offer a far better experience to their customers than anyone else can get near, and they get a stonking channel to sell software and services such as VoIP. They also get an instant Internet-connected small office product to sell into SMEs.

Would they make money? How could they fail -- if half the figures we're fed about TCO on thin client systems in the enterprise are true, then the whole system should cost at least a third less. Setting the sweet spot so that the customer feels like they're getting a bargain while extracting their fractional cost of the server is just a matter of the appropriate marketing, after all.

And the rest of us can finally tear down those FAFSS certificates from the wall and get on with those power user games of chase the Bagel, lose the backup and patch the Windows. Those thin clients look more tempting by the day.

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