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Replacing home PCs with virtualized thin clients

Gabe Knuth imagines a world where ISPs deliver virtualized desktops to thin clients in homes the same way cable and telephone services are provided. It's possible, but practical?

I recently read an I, Cringely article about how the author, Robert Cringely, moved his five-person house entirely...

to thin clients. It reminded me of the speculations we made many years ago about where the MetaFrame/Terminal Server technology could go.

Back then, we weren't thinking about our kids or wives -- we were thinking about the possibility of delivering desktops and apps with utility-like availability via thin clients. At the time, application service providers (ASPs) were trending (even though "trending" wasn't even a word) and it's not hard to see the parallels between those offerings  and today's Desktop as a Service (DaaS) solutions from providers such as Desktone and tuCloud.

Rather than leveraging the cloud, Cringely supports his own back-end hardware, but it's not hard to imagine how his approach to delivering home desktops could take on a new form in cloud-space.

If your cable or phone company built their own back end desktop delivery infrastructure or partnered with an existing DaaS company and leased thin clients to customers, a large portion of their user base could wind up using desktop virtualization and be none the wiser. Plus, since the Internet Service Provider owns the infrastructure, they can guarantee uptime and a certain level of user experience that perhaps even businesses can't commit to.

Before you get defensive, I'm with you. You'll have to pry my laptop and iPad from my cold, dead fingers. But my wife, kids, parents and grandparents would all get along just fine with a thin client (even one in a laptop form factor) for everything they do. There would be "parity," as Cringely calls it, across devices because each device would perform as well as the other devices. Plus, the data and applications would be available no matter what device was being used and each person would have a unified experience across the board.

So, why hasn't this approach to home computing taken off? I can think of a few reasons:

  1. It's not sexy. In no way is it a "ZOMG! I have to have this" kind of offering.
  2. It's only recently become somewhat practical to implement a thin client solution at scale. Prior to 2009, the technology wasn't robust enough to support the concept.
  3. Devices are becoming mobile. As Cringely notes, there wasn't much in the way of desktop computers in the Black Friday ads. It could be too late.
  4. The cloud is looming in front of us, waiting to solve all of our earthly problems.

There are plenty of roadblocks to this concept, but I've been hearing discussions about such offerings over the past few months. A solution like this is all about infrastructure and the applications, and once the masses have the access points, flipping a switch on the back end from Windows to whatever comes next means that the users won't have to worry about a thing. It will just be done for them, which is what most of them want in the first place.

Read more from Gabe Knuth

Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

This was last published in December 2011

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There's a few things that immediately come to mind that might give the average consumer pause in considering an offering like this:

1. Privacy. There's still a significant number of people who are inherently distrustful of the internet to begin with that it might be difficult to convince these risk-averse, privacy-proponent consumers to put all of their personal financial data, photos, and other sensitive or important records, etc. into the cloud. Look at what many people currently have on their hard drives of their home PC's - I'm betting most don't want all that TurboTax data, scans of social security cards and passports, and other similar information in the cloud. If they're going to have to keep that data in a local storage device, why not just keep the PC?

2. Personalization and performance experience. Home PC's are inherently bastions of customization and personalization. "It's mine, I can do whatever I want with it" mentality. Will users be content to have limits on their customization and personalization? What about peripherals? USB should be pretty compliant, but what about wireless or bluetooth devices people might require local connectivity for? Will the thin clients reliably be able to map and manage these devices like my current PC?

3. Support. If my kids mess something up on their PC, I can usually fix it without wiping it. If the same thing happens to my kids' DaaS desktop in the cloud, do I now have to call a support line to resolve an issue? What would the endpoint be - something that's provided by the carrier? A thin client? Who supports that?

4. Cost. PC's nowadays are relatively cheap. Would providers be willing to subsidize thin clients for subscribers? Would they lease them? The PC I buy has value if it's not connected to the cloud or Internet. I can still load software, play games, manage my iTunes library, produce content, etc. Most thin clients are going to be incapable of doing any of these in the absence of connectivity. If you start beefing up the client hardware to accomodate, you've then got, well, a PC.

Don't get me wrong, for many, it might be a great solution - to have access to a "computer" that is always there and that they don't have to worry about maintaining or upgrading. But for many, the "ownership" and personlization ability of a PC is still key to the whole computing experience. I like to be able to know that I can work offline. I like gaming with high end graphics. The question is going to be whether there would be cloud based offerings to support those activities so my user experience is not degraded. I think this WILL come at some point, I just don't know how quickly technology will adapt (and be available at the right price point) to convince people to replace what they currently have and use in their homes. Geeks like me will almost certainly be the early adopters!
Sounds like Google Chromebook ;} @pblakez
Finally. I am saying this already over a year that this is the new home solution. al your privata data in the cloud and at home a thin client on the road a tablet or laptop and in the car a carpc and you have al your data, music available.
Gabe & Mark (in comment),

Thank you for sharing your opinion here. completely agree.
DaaS needs to be more innovative than now.
Looking forward to seeing more disruptive technologies soon

Young , Founder of and NComputing, Inc.