Thin clients in, but fat ones not out
(IDG) -- LAS VEGAS - Between Forrester's recent claim that the PC market will falter after 2000 and various proclamations that the network computer concept is dead, users may wonder whether there will be anything left on the shelf for them to buy.
Industry bluster aside, thin clients and fat clients will peacefully co-exist, rather than butt heads until one drops dead, vendor representatives and users said at Comdex here this week.
"Thin clients win, fat clients lose-that's just wrong," said Mark Templeton, president of Citrix in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Citrix makes server software that lets users access Microsoft Windows applications hosted on a server using network computers or other client-side devices.
But Templeton said his company's success will not spell failure for traditional PCs, and other thin-client vendors agreed that PCs would continue to have a place in the market.
Thin clients are ideal for certain niches in a company where users only need access to a few applications, according to Victor DiBlasi, director, communications with Netier which is a Carrollton, Texas-based thin-client vendor. For example, the human resources department of a large company can use thin clients installed solely with a browser to allow job applicants to fill out forms.
The thin-client equation may make sense for NT administrator Matthew Meyer, who works at MDS Harris, which is a pharmaceutical research firm based in Lincoln, Neb. MDS has 200 PCs running Windows 95 and NT Workstation and two servers running NT 4.0. Meyer came to Comdex in part to evaluate thin-client options. Some MDS employees need full access to native applications but many mainly use their PCs to access an Oracle database running on OpenVMS, and for them a PC doesn't necessarily make sense, Meyer said.
"Some of our employees don't need full-fledged PCs," he said. "We are looking to see if we should replace any PCs with NCs or WBTs (Windows-based terminals)."
PCs won hands down at Liberty Mutual Insurance, which just rolled out 24,000 Compaq and Dell PCs, according to Robert Tarbox, infrastructure manager at the Portsmouth, N.H.-based company. Instead of mulling the value of fat clients vs. thin, Tarbox came to Comdex to find security utilities for his Windows 95-based computers but is finding that most of the compelling utilities are aimed at Windows NT.
"Some of the more sophisticated stuff is more geared toward that environment," Tarbox said.
PCs also prevail in the Palmdale, Calif., School District, which just yesterday placed an order for 300 350MHz and 400MHz Dell OptiPlexes, according to Lori Weatherbie, director of information services for the 19,000-student district.
Weatherbie considered network computers for the district but elected to stay with PCs. Teachers were concerned that a network failure during class would completely derail the lesson and were also adamant that they wanted control over the content on their computers, Weatherbie said.
"We want to stay with the PCs," Weatherbie said. "Servers don't go down often but they do go down, if you're in the computer world, (and) the ownership of the technology in the classroom is of prime concern."
The potential cost differential between thin and fat clients was a minor issue for Weatherbie and since the price gap between full-fledged PCs and thin clients continues to narrow, the initial purchasing cost is rapidly becoming secondary to other issues.
Hewlett-Packard's cheapest corporate desktop PC, for example, which is the Brio 7000C with a 266MHz Celeron processor, is currently selling for $799, a price point which is expected to drop further within the next three to six months, said Achim Kuttler, marketing manager for HP's high-end Vectra corporate desktop line.
In comparison, HP's latest WBT offering is priced just marginally lower at $699, but the company is still selling growing numbers of the thinner clients, Kuttler noted.
With the fat- and thin-client price gap closing, strategic issues come into the foreground, such as what application environment to deploy and total cost of ownership considerations. Some customers want "thin clients" in a very literal sense: to save space.
That's what prompted Dalton Williams, vice president of technology at Weststar Bank in Vail, Colo., to check out Netier at the show. Williams is looking for small computers to be used by the bank's tellers who have limited space but still need full-size computing power.
"Everyone at our company, right on up to the chairman, is used to small computers," he said.
Williams is not interested in a true network computer because his company already experimented with putting more software on the server. All it led to was bottlenecks, Williams said.
Vendors have heard the message of users like Williams, who want the choice to store software applications locally on fat clients or centrally on servers.
Corporate users don't have to choose one over the other, according to Paul Boulay, who is responsible for Network Station marketing at IBM's Network Computing division.
"Two years ago Larry Ellison said the network computer would take over the PC industry," Boulay said. "We never said that one or the other would dominate. What we do know is that the one size fits all PC is a thing of the past."
Rebecca Sykes is Correspondent at large for the IDG News Service. Mary Beth D'Amico is Munich correspondent for the IDG News Service. Terho Uimonen is Taipei, Taiwan correspondent for the IDG News Service. With additional reporting by Kristi Essick, Senior European correspondent for the IDG News Service.
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