Thick or thin?

August 31, 2005

I saw Om and Scoble’s light banter about thick vs. thin clients and it got me thinking about my vision for the future of computing – plus, I’m on a flight to Seattle again with no Internet connectivity, giving me plenty of time to think and write about the topic 🙂

As Om notes, many applications are moving to thin clients, more devices are becoming thin clients, and those devices are becoming more ubiquitous. Very true, but before the Internet, there was no reason for most consumer users and even many enterprise users to have thin clients. As many have pointed out in the comments of both posts, Office doesn’t need to be in a thin client; why should it? Even if it was fully responsive while online, what about the offline scenarios? The connected scenarios that people talk about (online collaboration, document sharing, software/template update delivery, etc.) are all available today with the application residing locally on your machine.

On the other hand, as Scoble notes, there are many applications that you probably will always want a thick client for – Photoshop being a good example. Generalizing a little bit, any application that requires a lot of processing power and demands a responsive interface will need to have some tie to the desktop, at least in the near future.

So yes, there are thick clients and there are thin clients… but is it really that black and white?

What I see in the future is most applications becoming some shade of grey – thick apps will start getting more connected, thin apps will start bleeding over onto the desktop. Let’s take one of the most pointed examples: e-mail.

I have 3 main e-mail accounts: blog, work, and personal. For my blog address, I use Thunderbird exclusively; for work I use Outlook/OWA; for personal I use GMail. The Thunderbird client vs. GMail access highlights the thick vs. thin client pretty readily. With Thunderbird, I can read and compose mail offline, I get extremely snappy response, and I can use a familiar drag/drop interface. With GMail, I can read my mail wherever I go, the “software” is always updated, and there are interesting places where integration can occur (see Google Talk’s use of the GMail address book).

Now take a look at Outlook/OWA… for the same e-mail account, I have both a thick client and a thin client. This begs the question: why isn’t there just one hybrid client? Or rather, why don’t they improve OWA to the point where Outlook can just be a browser with some offline store (cached mode) capabilities? Better yet, why isn’t that online/offline store a WinFS store? Why isn’t Outlook rendered through Avalon? Wouldn’t this hybrid Outlook communicate using Indigo?

Aha! The WinFX vision lives 🙂

As you can probably tell, these new frameworks really excite me. Why? Because it makes the thick/thin client debate obsolete and gives the users the best experience. Want snappy thick client response? You get it with an offline WinFS store and client-rendered Avalon UI. Want a sweet travel scenario? You get it with an online WinFS store and a remote scripted web app. Want to connect up these scenarios? Indigo and WinFS replication to the rescue!

The really frustrating thing is, as exciting as these scenarios are, they are still at least 5 years away. Sure Avalon, Indigo, and WinFS will probably ship within the next 2-3 years, but the majority of users won’t have these frameworks until the version of Windows after Vista. That means most application developers – including Microsoft themselves – won’t be able to use these constructs until then.

In an extremely ironic move, Office has been resisting dependencies on the .NET Framework. Why? Beats me. If I were BillG, I would’ve said, “Hey Raikes and Sinofsky, guess what? The latest version of .NET Framework is going to be included in the Office installer and future development on Office will start using the .NET Framework.” What happened to Office being the best dogfooding of the Windows platform?

Oh sure, there will be complaints. The .NET redist is too large, it’s too slow, we’ve got too much legacy code. Erm, since when did that stop Microsoft from releasing Office 95? If I recall correctly, Windows 95 wasn’t the snappiest OS on the existing hardware when it first came out; my old Pentium running Office 6 on Win 3.1 readily spanked Office 95 running on Win 95. But back then, Microsoft was willing to make a big bet on their own platform – they said, fine, it might be slower, but we’re looking at the future here.

Currently for $500 you get a 2.8 GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 40GB disk. I don’t think that hardware is going to have a hard time running Office inside the CLR.

Microsoft’s in a dominant position right now. What do they have to lose by transitioning Office to .NET?

Ok, so that went off on a tangent, but hey, the flight is 2 hours, so I’ve got time to explore tangents 

Anyways, back to the original topic, in my opinion, the vision of WinFX is spot on. Syncable online/offline stores, service oriented communication layers, and client-rendered rich UI. I think that’s the future of application development – it’s neither a thick client nor a thin client. It’s just a connected, rich client.

Will Microsoft be the one who enables this? Will Google? Yahoo? Who knows, but the developers of the world are waiting for someone to do it 😀

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No Responses Yet to “Thick or thin?”

  1. The Noon Says:

    ah, thru thick and thin it is! 🙂


  2. You have a nice blog. I’ve added it to my faves.


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