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Thinner PC talk increases

Feb 09, 20064 mins
ComputersSmall and Medium Business

* Leave it to Google to make thin client PC's a cool topic again

This month, the buzz about PCs seems almost deafening. And what started all the noise? Google rumors. More specifically, rumors about Google producing a PC. Read the official Google denials.

Google generates rumors almost better than they do searches, but the rumor of a PC stripped down to a Google desktop with little more than a browser and an e-mail client (or maybe browse to your Google Mail account) touched off more yearning among tech folks than a drop in memory prices. Why is that, and what can that tell you about your desktop equipment purchases over the next few months?

I believe the pendulum now swings toward desktops doing less, not more. PCs were originally a relief from complex and expensive mainframes and midrange computers. Now PC hardware doesn’t cost much, but the cost of productivity software (Microsoft Windows XP operating system and some version of Microsoft Office) remains high. Worse, security headaches make a PC more complicated and troublesome than ever before. What once brought simplicity now brings complexity, and attendant aggravation.

“Thin client” is the name for simplified PCs, and some describe them as little more than dumb terminals from the minicomputer days. Not exactly true. You can buy thin clients that require servers to host applications, bringing back the terminal-to-minicomputer feel, or you can recognize that many users don’t need nearly as much software as they now have installed on their PCs.

Take a look around the company, and count how many people spend their workday using primarily their Web browser, their e-mail client, and one “real” application. If the person does Web programming, they may have DreamWeaver or another application. If the person creates newsletters, the application may be Adobe’s InDesign. The “real” application could be accounting, or customer sales monitoring, or UPS and FedEx shipment tracking. Many times, their “real” application runs in a Web browser, such as using or UPS and FedEx shipment tracking.

There are two ways you can take advantage of the new trends in simplified PCs. First, you can remove Microsoft Office from users who need nothing more than WordPad, the free word processor that ships with Windows. Move that Office license to another system, or put it on the shelf and save money when you don’t upgrade that copy of Office.

Second, you can simplify your life and avoid viruses and spyware by making your own thin client PCs by replacing Windows with some version of Linux. Admittedly, since I just finished reading Just Say No To Microsoft by Tony Bove (from No Starch Press), replacing Windows seems like official marching orders. I’ll have a book report soon, but with that title you can bet Bove is all for replacing Windows on every computer possible. He doesn’t dive too deeply into the idea of a thin client for current Windows users, but that idea fits well with the main philosophy of the book.

What fueled the excitement about the Google PC? The idea you can take inexpensive hardware, load it with inexpensive software (Google gives software away now, so we can bet the Google PC would have cheap if not free software), and still get plenty of work done. Put on enough of an operating system to support a powerful browser, and many users would have all they need right there. Browse to your e-mail (Google Mail or use the company’s Web mail interface to read your e-mail), browse to your calendar, browse to your online application, browse the day away.

What’s missing? Security holes, spyware, viruses attacks, and constant operating system upgrades to stay one step ahead of the hackers. Linux (and Macintosh systems, as Bove points out) avoids nearly all the virus and spyware pain inflicted on Windows users daily.

Rarely can you cut costs and look trendy doing so, but you can do so right now. You’re not taking away Microsoft Office to be cheap, you’re doing it to make a fashionable thin client. For many users, cutting down their PC’s application load will save them aggravation and make their PC run faster.

Best of all, users will remain happy because every version of Linux includes Solitaire.