The latest, most wonderous, hula-hoop to hit Wintel is the zero client - and the process by which a 15 year old Unix innovation finally made it to the Wintel community shared consciousness illustrates both how PC marketing works and something about the consequences of taking the PC press too seriously.
Years ago HP offered the option of putting the keyboard, screen, and mouse on the user desk and the PC on a rack in the data center - but this idea didn't sell well. In today's version that physical PC has become a ghost: a virtual PC running in server memory, and quite a few companies are now selling smarter ways of connecting the desktop to it than the traditional Wintel approach in which real licensed PCs run licensed PC emulators accessing licensed virtual PCs.
Right now the company at the leading edge of this seems to be Panologic - makers of the Pano System. The Pano is a neat device: it does no local computing, can provide some cryptology support, and uses the standard network to connect to the host session - now limited to a virtual PC running under some OS like VMware's.
If that reminds you of the original Sun Ray, it should because other than requiring the server to load and run a 512MB Windows emulation to run a 10K user process, the Pano System offers roughly the same features, costs roughly the same, is managed roughly the same way, and provides roughly the same benefits in terms of cost, heat and noise elimination, manageability, and desktop security.
Lots of PC reviewers love this thing - zdnet's own Jason Perlow calls it "revolutionary" and sees a big role for future zero clients running Linux.
Now, personally, I'm hoping Pano does extremely well: that Gartner's projection of 660 million virtual PCs by 2011 turns out an underestimate, because the ideas behind it are both inevitable in the long run and as valuable to business now as they were 15 years ago - but the company's success in raising its own hype rating raises a question: what makes Pano hot where Sun Ray has long been an untouchable?
The answer, I think, comes in two parts: first Sun marketing refused to sell Sun Ray as what it is: a smart display; and instead insisted on pretending it is what it isn't: a thin client. Pano's self description as a "zero client" is lot better; in fact, it's halfway home because both devices are smart displays and not clients at all.
The second part is more subtle: ever wonder why getting drunk together has been a bonding ritual for thousands of years? It's the civilian version of playing with the elephant because alcohol, like terror, both cripples and isolates - making getting drunk together a powerful means of forming an Us by imposing the mutual equality of incapacitation on its members while setting up a strong boundary against Them - the sober people outside. Pano's limitations and marketing are designed, I think, to exploit this phenomenon: to use Pano you have to have Windows, you have to have Active Directory, you have to have VMware (or something similar), you have to have x86, and the sales pitch assumes a whole panoply of popular delusion: from the value of PC style virtualization to climate change guilt - while Sun Ray, of course, presents as the sober opposite: a content agnostic device sold on value.
So what's the bottom line? if you're running an all wintel shop and think that's your future: I suggest you ignore Pano's sales pitch to take a close look at the cost, security, and managability benefits products like theirs can bring you - and when you find out for yourself how well the smart display idea works, you should then ask whose bad advice led you to not take this route ten or even fifteen years ago.