At an interview last week with John Markoff, I made a statement that seems to have generated some concern over my sanity. I said, “I don’t believe in thin clients.”
Let me start by saying I started my technology career with a company that built client (ie, desktop) software. I care a lot about user experience. And for that reason, I’ve always thought the words thin client were oxymoronic. No two words have ever been less comfortable sitting next to one another – one cannot have a client without at least some functionality or ‘state’ on a device, and the girth of that state (as measured by memory or storage or application footprint) directly correlates to the interactivity of the client.
In simple terms, TV’s got more interesting when they sprouted set top boxes. Radio got more interesting when iPods came along. And cell phones blossomed when you could download games and ringtones to their resident Java platforms. (Cache is king – although it can be stolen (think laptop), but I’ll leave that cryptically hanging for another blog).
Industry convention says that apps written to browsers are defined to be “thin.” But by that definition, thin really equates to “using someone else’s runtime environment” – in that the browser itself has to be present for the service to be rendered. And last I checked, browsers require operating systems and windowing environments. Not exactly thin. So in my book, it’s inaccurate to say Google or YouTube are “thin clients” – they’re services that leverage someone else’s thick client. A browser.
With this heresy behind me, I’m also (less controversially) of the belief that the most interesting consumer innovations are those we experience with our eyes – through compelling clients. And until recently, very few companies were investing in client software or hardware – sure, there were lots of browser apps, but that’s what they were.
But why the renewed energy around clients? This was venture capital no man’s land a few years back, but no more.
First, the strategic reason – relying on someone else’s browser is a precarious choice. Especially when the distributor of the browser can use it to compete against you (type “news” into Microsoft Vista’s browser, and you don’t go to news.com, you go to MSN News…). That’s driving a lot of companies to validate their services against Firefox, Opera and the Java platform – and as interestingly, it’s driving companies to rewrite their apps to be standalone network clients, like iTunes, or the NetBeans developer tool. Standalone network clients, hardware or software, avoid the threat of disintermediation from unfriendly runtime environments.
Lastly – the network has finally become pervasive. You can get a signal nearly (I did say nearly) everywhere – but as we move from a world of relatively reliable landline networks, to one in which we share services with mobile and wireless networks, the latter’s spottier reliability is becoming more pervasive. And for a network service to retain its utility, it’s got to do more than fail to appear when invoked off the net. Which implies an interactive client that persists, or hangs around, even when the network disappears for a moment. That’s why your in-car navigation system works, even if the update feature is disabled.
Now again, I am at my core someone who cares about clients – and user experience. Servers without clients are called space heaters – so it’s good to see innovation returning to clients, especially network clients. It’s been bottled up in the traditional definition of thin for too long. And although I don’t believe in thin (except for one very pure, very low power, unthievable interpretation), I’m a huge believer in the network. And all devices that attach to the network (just go to CES next year, you’ll be awed).
So with that as a preamble, allow me to congratulate the Java community on having voted to approve a new Java platform, Java Standard Edition 6 – whose arrival yesterday via the Java Community Process heralds the single biggest improvement in the Java platform in years. And a vast improvement in user experience. Vast.
With Java now powering more than four billion devices (ahem, network clients), the question we now face is how do we approach the next few billion. And without giving away the answer to that question, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quips:
Different isn’t always better.
But better’s always different.