The Simplicity Of

Dec. 21, 2004
Two companies believe they'll thrive by keeping PCs off employees' desktops.

Think outside the box? Why not just get rid of the box? That's what some executives, looking for a little technological simplicity, are doing, apparently with no regrets. The box in question is the personal computer, and it's being tossed aside to make way for another box that promises to be quite a bit simpler to install, use, and maintain. Called a Windows-based terminal, these desktop machines are the essence of simplicity: a keyboard, a screen, and just enough processing power to send commands to a larger computer somewhere else and to display the results that come back. Sound familiar? Anyone familiar with mainframe or midrange computing will recognize the concept, because today's Windows-based terminals are little more than yesterday's "dumb terminals," which reigned on desktops for three decades. The only substantive change is that in their new iteration these terminals can run Windows, with a mouse to click on icons, rather than a blinking cursor moving over a screen of glowing green text. Not a huge leap forward, truth be told, and yet for many companies these terminals fill the bill without running it up. Some companies are adopting them simply because the machines offer just enough to get the job done -- and no more. Others are working them into more sophisticated architectures, looking to save money and devote energy to those aspects of information technology that promise a better payoff. Emirates Trading Agency Ltd. (ETA) is a good example of the first. Part of the $1 billion ETA-Ascon Group, a diversified company with holdings in engineering, construction, shipping, and other industries, this small London-based unit distributes power-generation equipment to oil and gas operations around the world. With only 15 people in the office, there is no information-systems staff. In fact, keeping people plugged in is a task that fell to sales engineer Peter McClatchie, and he was none too happy about it. "I'm really supposed to be out selling," McClatchie says, "not sitting in the office making sure everyone's PC is working." So he was happy when he learned that Wyse Technology Inc. was offering a dumb terminal with Windows functionality. "About a year before I even heard of it, I had thought someone should apply Windows to terminals. Then it landed in my lap, and I couldn't believe it!" ETA had been using a UNIX server and standard Wyse dumb terminals, but the solution was growing long in the tooth. The server itself was only a 486-based machine -- a processing weakling by today's standards -- and fast running out of horsepower. The logical move would have been to scrap it all in favor of a network of high-powered PCs, but McClatchie didn't want to go that route. "PCs never struck me as the right way forward, because I wanted to centralize information that can be accessed easily from anywhere," he says. And PCs posed other problems as well. "They're expensive, not as reliable, and people learn at different rates. There are also security issues. I didn't want people bringing in software on disks that they'd load or pulling stuff off the Internet that could infect the network." So ETA replaced its old Wyse terminals with the new Windows-based version, dubbed Winterm. The cost of the upgrade, $45,000, was comparable to a move to a PC network, but McClatchie says that in the long run this move will result in significant savings. "If we had gone with PCs, in five years we'd need to replace them all. With a new server and these terminals, we're ready for anything." Another benefit, albeit not one that will apply to everyone, is that the terminals can incorporate not only e-mail and faxing capabilities, but also Telex. "I know Telex may strike some people as a thing of the past," McClatchie says, "but in many countries where we do business it's still a viable means of communication, and we needed to be able to handle it from our desktops." The advent of Windows-based terminals coincides with another recent desktop development, the much-ballyhooed debut of "network computers," or NCs. Both are members of a class of computers dubbed "thin clients," which means they have little processing power compared with their beefier cousin, the PC. Thin clients have no disk drives and virtually no ability to run software; they are simply conduits to a larger computer, a server, that does all the work. The big difference between Windows-based terminals and NCs is that the latter can run Java applets, while the former can't. Java applets are programs written in the Java language pioneered by Sun Microsystems Inc. Originally developed as a fast and easy way to jazz up Internet sites with animation and various forms of interactivity, Java has proven to be remarkably flexible and is now used to write a wide variety of programs that can run on virtually any hardware platform. Despite the momentum in the world of Java, the less sophisticated Windows-based terminals appeal to many. "I can see these devices grabbing 5% to 10% or more of all desktops in corporate America," says Eileen O'Brien, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "There aren't enough Java applets out there to make the NC broadly viable, and the Microsoft endorsement of Windows-based terminals really helps those devices." And the Java issue may become moot when Microsoft ships its "Hydra" server software this month. This product can run Java applets at the server level. In fact, the low cost and ease of operation are factors likely to appeal as much to large companies as to small operations such as ETA. Consider Aviall Inc., a Houston-based $400 million distributor of aircraft parts. The company faced a problem familiar to many: It has 39 locations around the world using a variety of PCs and dumb terminals in varying stages of near-obsolescence. Eager to roll out new software, including a new enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) system, the company didn't think its motley assortment of hardware provided a proper foundation. "We wanted the rollout to be as simple as possible," says Margaret Bouline, Aviall's IS director. "Complexity drives up cost. At first we thought we'd have to buy new PCs, but the ongoing support and maintenance was going to be astronomical." Windows-based terminals, again from Wyse, proved the answer. One benefit has been ease of installation. "We have between 10 and 35 people at our branches," Bouline says, "but we sent someone to install the devices only at the biggest branches. At the others we just had a conference call and taught people remotely how to hook them up and use them." That's not to say that the move to Windows-based terminals was completely without headaches. "We have some people who have been using the same character-based applications for 20 years," Bouline explains. For them, learning how to use a mouse and click on icons was a big departure. And Aviall doesn't have to worry that employees will make the kinds of mistakes that can cause major headaches with PCs. "No one is going to accidentally delete a file or introduce a virus," Bouline says, "since these terminals make that impossible." Network manager Randy Myers says the move to Windows-based terminals has provided simplicity in another way as well. "We used to have three terminals in one of our warehouses," he says, "a PC, a green-screen terminal, and another one devoted to a specific application. Now we can consolidate all that and have one Windows-based terminal handle everything." Ultimately, Aviall's move to standardize on Windows-based terminals will simplify the management of desktop computing. However, the company is likely to encounter greater complexity in its information-technology setup, as a result of a new ERP system currently being installed. Such complexity may be an inescapable fact of business today. "We distribute parts made by more than 140 manufacturers to 13,000 general aviation operators and 300 airlines," Bouline says. "Our move to ERP and our efforts to roll out other new software largely are intended to tie us closer to our business partners." Computers have always promised simplicity of a sort: Get your arms around more data, crunch it, and make better decisions; or handle more accounts more cheaply; or serve customers better than you possibly could without computers. These simple goals often have remained elusive. The reason is that technology itself has been complex to use and integrate. Windows-based terminals aren't for everyone, and there are a vast number of IS problems they won't solve. But they and their thin-client brethren are among the few devices to be touted as much for what they can't do as for what they can. For the executive who suspects the company has purchased many machines with bells and whistles that have never properly sounded, this shift could be welcome.

Key Questions
Although many companies might see the new generation of desktop computing devices as an ideal way to simplify, adopting the devices is not a hassle-free decision. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
  • Which type of device? Windows-based terminals are designed primarily to allow users to access software that resides on a central computer, using the typical Windows point-and-click interface. Network computers have more computing horsepower (for example, some software is downloaded to the desktop on demand and executed there) and usually run what's called a "browser" interface, familiar to anyone who has surfed the Internet using Netscape, Microsoft Explorer, or similar products.
  • How much server muscle? While Windows-based terminals are cheap (about $500 today, and competition has barely begun) they're cheap for a reason: They have almost no processing power, relying instead on the muscle of the server. This means that you may need to upgrade or even replace current servers, and that costs money. You also need to make sure your network can handle the increased traffic from server to desktops.
  • User backlash? Employees currently using some form of "dumb terminal" may balk at having to learn a new interface, although joining the point-and-click world seems inevitable at some point. The bigger backlash may come from employees who are used to having PCs. They may feel as if they've lost some autonomy -- unless, of course, you keep a few games on your server for those occasional downtimes.
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