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Longhorn may bridge the thin, fat client worlds

If all goes as planned, Microsoft's Longhorn will offer a compromise for those mired in the debate over thin versus fat clients.

Desktop decisions:
A special report

Last of three parts.

When Microsoft gave software developers an early look at its next operating system at the Professional Developers Conference last fall, it revived some of the debate surrounding the value of a fat client versus that of a thin one.

Microsoft has bet the farm on its next-generation desktop operating system software, code-named Longhorn, which will undoubtedly be as stout in size as XP. The difference between the two operating systems is in the code. As part of Microsoft's .NET development strategy, Longhorn will use managed code, which lets an application run anywhere, anytime, on any device, experts say.

Microsoft's goals are ambitious but, if all goes as planned, Longhorn offers something of a compromise. "If the customer is using a thin-client device and the application is self-aware, it knows it's running on a terminal, so it can't cache," said Mark Margevicius, a research director at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "The application will be self-transposing, so it's appropriate for any device."

This means that a customer running Longhorn on a PC will have a rich user experience that includes high-bandwidth color displays. But the software will also know whether the customer is using a PDA, and the environment will be downgraded accordingly.

"With Longhorn, Microsoft is pushing to where we break out of the browser, but you still have a distributed application," said John Robbins, an application developer and founder of Wintellect Inc., a Knoxville, Tenn., software company.

For the past few years, customers have shifted toward using the browser as a user interface. For a while, IT executives thought that perhaps they could move applications back to the server. But now it turns out that, in many cases, the browser may not be the best user interface after all.

Most Web sites show static data, but when an enterprise tries to make it a little richer, it becomes a nightmare, Robbins said. "You've got code running in multiple places, and it starts breaking down," he said.

At UnumProvident, IT executives have been converting users from an old IBM OS/2 claims-processing application to a Windows browser, but they initially chose a thin client. Randy Robinson, the company's vice president of IT, said that the company wanted to keep the interface as similar as possible. The company changed its position because, even though the thin client was serviceable, it just wasn't as useful as a fat client.

"Some of the notebook and container controls were too hard to duplicate," Robinson said. "We felt the costs were too high and the maintenance of the application too hard."

Other customers may reach different conclusions, depending on their circumstances. At Paxson Communications Corp., the entire accounting program runs on thin clients to help keep overall costs down, said Scott Saunders, director of systems technology at the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based broadcast company.

"We are a geographically dispersed, small MIS staff," Saunders said. "This is much more effective than having PCs and servers in the field, which then requires having a lot of staff to support."

Longhorn won't ship for several years, and it could be several years beyond that before customers start to install the software. It will likely be introduced on new systems, so it will be years before customers have to decide what to do.

In many cases, customers want to analyze data in complicated ways, and that may be too difficult with a thin client, said Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. There are cases when the use of Microsoft Office can shine over a thin client, but it means putting a heavyweight product on each desktop and pushing some code to those desktops as well.

For some customers, there may be a significant cost in migration off of a thick client onto a thin one. Other clients may have a migration approach that doesn't have much cost associated with it at all. "[Customers must decide] what makes sense for the business from an operational perspective," said Gartner's Margevicius. "The market is so big now; it's not an either/or [choice]."


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