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Were PCs Just a Blip?

The future is in thin clients. And so was the past. “The cloud” is taking us back to the future of the old client-server model.

Everyone’s been talking about The Cloud for the last few years like it’s something new and different. For those of us with a long(er) memory, it’s a new buzzword for an old concept.

Back in the mid ‘90s, whenever we needed to draw a mobile network, we drew a cloud. I never really questioned why we drew a cloud, and don’t recall even calling the mobile network a cloud—even though it was/is one.

Going back further you can trace the concept of so-called cloud computing back to the very early days of computing in the 1950s. In those days, computers came in one-size: the mainframe. And the mainframe model is that of a client-server. You would access the information you needed through a dumb terminal (the client), which connected to the mainframe (the server).

The next phase was minicomputers, which was far from ‘mini’ by today’s standards, but equally didn’t fill the entire room like the previous generation mainframe. Again the model was client-server, with all your data stored remotely and accessed through a (relatively) ‘dumb’ terminal.

Then came the 1980s, and we entered the age of personal computers. The first system that would be recognizable as a full working PC would the Xerox Alto—and then Star. They both had a keyboard and a mouse. The Star also had a window-based GUI, and built-in Ethernet connectivity. It was a networked computer from the start. So the ‘first’ modern personal computers were still using the network model of the previous generations. But for various reasons, the early modern PCs/OSs (Apple Lisa, Windows 1.0, GEM and AmigaOS) had little or no networking capabilities. Once they entered the home, networking was all but lost. And so the need to store all information locally, outside the cloud, made computers truly ‘personal’ for the first time.

Since the late ‘90s, we’ve been working our way back to the old client-server model. From the early start of the likes of CompuServe to the WiFi-soaked homes and coffee shops of the 2010s, we’ve increasingly gone back to the cloud. It started with email. Over time, we’ve been accessing more and more services through our new ‘dumb terminal’: the web browser.

Back in the ‘90s another term appeared: ‘thin client’. Like most, I took this to mean thin as in a small amount of software/code—so basically another client/terminal.

But today, thin clients are actually physically thin. They are mobile phones and tablets running apps, or any mobile device accessing cloud data through a browser/web front-end. In your hand, you hold more computing power than your laptop.

And where is nearly all your data? In the cloud.

The Cloud is really a return to that same framework we had up until the ‘90s. Looking at it this way, PCs and their locally stored data may be just a blip in the evolution of how we use computers.

Will we miss them? For a lot of people - no. Non-technical people have struggled to manage all their own software, local data, backup, etc. For the casual user, it was much simpler before when the experts handled all that. Now we’re back to the same idea, where all the critical information is kept safe in a remote location. This model is also better for corporations because they can be wholly in charge of their data .

Now that wireless networks and the Internet have brought us back round, it seems like using local data will again become the exception—instead of the rule.


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