Interview: Where are the thin clients?

Last year was supposed to be the year of the network computer. But only half a million thin clients were shipped last year, a number industry players hoped they would see in 1997. Edward Petrozelli, recently appointed to head IBM's network computer division, acknowledges that thin clients haven't stormed the market but says IBM saw sales rise last year.

In an interview last week with Computerworld US senior writers Stacy Collett and Stewart Deck, Petrozelli discussed where thin clients work and where PCs are better.

CW: In what vertical markets are thin clients working well?

Petrozelli: We're seeing finance, security and insurance to be very early adopters and rolling out large numbers [of thin clients] because of their need to connect to the Internet. Many of their applications are spread across different servers.

Right behind that we're seeing retail and distribution. We're seeing [them] do everything from checking inventory, to linking to suppliers, to providing their own employees with access to benefits information.

CW: Are there businesses where thin clients are not a good fit?

Petrozelli: If you're doing sophisticated CAD [computer-aided design], designing airplanes, it's probably not a good fit. Also, an environment where every end user has a different suite of personal applications [also is a mismatch].

CW: Will customers continue opting for a mix of thin clients and PCs in 1999?

Petrozelli: Our customers are saying there is a need for both. With some of the financial institutions or insurance companies, 70 percent to 80 percent of devices may be thin clients. Others may be a 50-50 split depending on what the users are doing.

As new applications and other pervasive devices come out, there will be PCs, thin clients and some handheld devices out there that hook into the same environment.

CW: Critics say all the software needed to run thin clients isn't available. Where is the software today?

Petrozelli: We look at thin clients as [they provide] function - access into legacy apps, on into the Internet space, moving up into being able to run Java applets. That software suite is now there. It is not dependent on Java.

There's a lot of functionality in the browser space that enables [users] to access the Internet [or] multiple servers in their own environment. That suite has rapidly ramped up. We're also seeing business partners that now have their applications enabled for a thin-client environment. SCO, the largest Unix provider on an Intel chip base, has implemented thin clients across their new operating system going out this month.

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