The Return to Thin and Dumb

I recently did a review of the Acer Aspire Revo.  It’s a small, cheap desktop the sports an Atom processor.  What’s impressive is it caters for probably 95+% of my usual PC usage.  That’s quite a feat for a machine that cost less than £200 (although I added Windows later) and supposedly draws only 25W.  It’s not perfect though.  Aside from some issues with fan noise it does occasionally struggle when I’m trying to do too much and I wouldn’t want to consider more intensive tasks like graphics editing or video transcoding.

I also have a home theatre PC (HTPC), which is bulky mainly because I need to get an optical drive and a couple of terabytes of storage in it.  One option is to have a bigger machine to work as a server and just a small device to play back the files to the TV.  Which got me thinking about computing in the home.

The big news at the moment is cloud computing.  Computing as Software as a Service (SaaS).  Which is fine, but it has a number of drawbacks.  The biggest are probably security, network connectivity/speed and processing power.  Yes, there are security issues using home computers but it’s a far smaller target and much more difficult to find.  Break into Google and you potentially have access to hundreds of thousands of accounts, making them a better target for the effort.  Not to mention having to trust the administrators of these systems who legitimately have access.  As far as speed goes, transferring a few gigabytes of data from a USB drive takes minutes, try doing that across the typical internet connection and it’ll be hours or more.  Not really going to work if you want to watch a movie.  Lastly comes processing power.  Yes, you can get computing power in chunks, but why would you bother?  Generally, labour intensive tasks involve fairly large amounts of data, which would take time to transfer, and the biggest bottleneck of any system is the transfer from the hard drive.  Imagine that across the internet.

So, cloud computing may be the future, but in the home.  Instead of outsourcing all the stuff to a third party, we’ll start to see machines that can be connected and stay on 24/7 and provide all those services on our own server.  At the moment you can do that, but it’s a big pain to setup and difficult to get right (looking at Windows Home Server it may be easier than I thought).  Before long you’ll be able to buy pre-configured machines that’ll do it.  Windows Home Server is an example of where this could go.

The other reason for this approach is that we are heading towards ubiquity of computers around the home, they’ll be everywhere and in everything.  Having seen how capable a small Atom-based machine is, most people wouldn’t need more for most of their needs.  But occasionally they will, the same as I do, occasionally they’ll want to edit the video of the kids or convert a DVD to put it on a device for the car.  That’s when an extra bit of oomph will be needed.

At the moment, I’m guessing the average home has one PC, which gets used for everything.  The kids use it for homework (all submitted online these days), the parents for shopping and paying bills as well as everyone keeping up with friends.  Quite a few households I know already have more than one PC (even my grandparents have a desktop and a laptop).  The prices keep dropping and it makes sense to have a computer where you need one.  Add to that people are already several generations in, they have spare PCs.  Multiple machines do add complexity though.  You have to sync your files, or keep share folders, maybe even use an external device like network attached storage (NAS).

Why should we be limited to one PC?  Cost?  Possibly.  What about the complexities of sharing files?  While the home market has been adding more and more computers, the business world, at least in servers, has woken up to the fact that multiple machines needs more licences, more power and more administration.  Most servers are more powerful than they need to be and there’s more demand for them than ever.  So virtualisation has become big.  You use one physical machine and share its resources between numerous virtual machines, they look and act like ordinary servers.

Now imagine that you have one central machine at home and just buy cheap, low-powered machines that can link back to the central server, they don’t even need to run the same operating system.  They could be stripped down to the minimum.  A low power processor, graphics chip and a few gig of solid-state storage space.  They’d use little power, which would mean better battery life for mobile devices and always on capability for hard-wired devices (they could show screensavers with weather, latest emails, etc or whatever).  Admittedly you’d have to have a more powerful machine in the background, but a normal desktop would suffice for most people, yet still be capable of supporting multiple users.  You could always enable Wake-on-LAN so the machine slept to save power when not in use (I suspect we’ll start to see things like the stop-go technology in cars).

Switching off would be a thing of the past, you could just lock your session and come back to it whenever you wished.  Fewer licences and machines to keep upgraded.  No need to run anti-virus on them all (the local machines wouldn’t run apps).  You can control and administer it all from one machine (check what the kids are doing online).  There are already some applications available for businesses and education.  For example, Fiddlehead, or NComputing, or SoftXpand, or Microsoft’s own Multipoint Server.  But these are currently aimed at being physically attached to the same machine, what they need to do it support it across a network.  This is a bit like what Terminal Services does (we have machines at work that use it) but it’s expensive and not designed for home users.

Rather than just thin client boxes we’ll start to see thin client devices.  Screens with some processing power built in, portable devices like tablets and laptops, the form factor could be anything: mirrors, pictures frames, you name it.  You could even re-use old computers that are no longer powerful enough to run the latest apps.

Having said that, where I work we run several clients across one ADSL connection using Terminal Services, so maybe it’ll change and you’ll buy a hosted operating system that runs on a virtual server somewhere and you just get a dumb terminal to connect to it.  Personally I’d still worry about security, but for those who are not technically minded it would take everything out of their hands (buy a small box, pay a monthly subscription, sign up and away).  The point is that the future is not web versions of desktop applications, only that they be connected and available wherever.

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