IBM's Thin Clients This Year and Beyond

As IBM brings newer, wider ranging technology to its line of thin-client products, it seems to be keeping an eye on the strategic value of its business partners—more specifically, its application service providers (ASPs.) All vendor business partners, including IBM's, provide a great deal of add-on value and help the ultimate end user, the customer, more easily absorb and manage the latest technology changes.

The thin client is a member of IBM's Network Station family, with a product line that includes Series 300, 1000, 2200 and 2800 models. Thin clients access applications from servers, and can be centrally managed at the server. Since 1996 when they were launched, IBM has been aggressively pursuing this space, by focusing the Personal System Group on thin clients and Network Stations, and by making Network Stations part of a larger rebranding effort.

The newest thin client enhancements, announced by the Personal Systems Group earlier this month include: Windows-based terminals to run on Series 2200 hardware; preconfigured "Network Station Manager Xpress," to ease installation; Linux-based, open-source environment support on thin Series 2200 and 2800 devices; a “Zero-Footprint" option for Network Stations; and V2R1 Enhancements.

While these are IBM's latest steps, are these newest applications and appliances here to stay? IBM describes its "value proposition" as providing technology that's usable for a range of four to six years. Certainly, IBM's customers (or any hi-tech company's) want technology that's not going to be labeled obsolete in a week, a month, or even a year.

What else does the end user care about? Of course the technology is critical and always will be to any industry product. But, to quote Howie Hunger, director of marketing and channels for IBM's Network Station products, "Function and value are what's critical. That's what customers care about." Well said.

It's safe to say that customers want it all—and they want it all on their desktops. This includes: the ability to run Java and Linux applications; multi-user Windows NT, which IBM estimates about 60 percent of its Network Stations use today; the ability to access e-mail and a Web browser easily and effectively from remote locations; and easy transitioning between server-based and browser-based applications. It's a tall order, but Big Blue seems up to this challenge.

If there's a larger implication, it's this: Customers' interests and requirements are changing to keep pace with the "e-commercing" of companies globally. Their focus is on functionality, mobility and flexibility. They'll get that when companies such as IBM bring broader software technologies and solutions to more hardware systems.

The financial, medical and retail industries represent some of IBM's largest customers. These are big players, and they increasingly want customized solutions (that is, a wide array of applications and devices) for their thin clients, in order to optimize them in very specific environments.

That's where I see the possibility for a win-win relationship between IBM and its ASPs. IBM is working aggressively to bring thin-client technology to its ASPs, who can, in turn, sell the enhanced models as the preferred device. I anticipate even more intensive support for ASPs in the year ahead, as IBM packages Network Stations with the ASP's own offerings. One customer called it IBM's "ASP/thin-client solution."

IBM is also a key partner with Citrix, and very recently, IBM and Planet Computer have come together to create a thin-client "recruiting solution" that packages Planet Computer's Internet-based ASP with IBM's thin clients, which connect back to Netfinity Servers at Planet Computer.

Overall, it's a strategic merge of open-source and server-based computing that extends to the thin-client line of products. It's taking the best from each and meeting the new demands of the e-business community head-on to provide the newest computing solutions.

In the 1960's, "batch data processing" and time-sharing were in vogue. Now in 2000 and beyond, ASPs appear to carry on that time-sharing tradition. That's probably too much of a simplification, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Keep your eyes on this trend as we head into 2001, and you won’t lose sight of the "solution" direction in which we are heading!

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