Phones Are the New Thin Clients


I hope you read the review of LogMeIn Ignition for iPhone that was published today. This is a great app and one that I’ve been using for years, not just on my iPod touch but also on a variety of Windows phones.

This is the best example of thin-client computing I know of, as it lets you use one not very powerful computer to control a second much more capable one.

Turn On the Wayback Machine
Thin-clients got their start decades with mainframes, and there was an attempt back in the 1990s to bring this technology to Microsoft Windows, with little or no success. This is because , at the time, the differences between a thin client and a fat client weren’t significant enough.

The concept was a laptop without a hard drive as the thin-client, which would be connected to a server at an office or possibly the home.  The problem was the price difference between the client laptop and a regular laptop was maybe a $100. Virtually everyone would rather just pay a little extra money and get a full computer. Especially as wireless networking was in its infancy in those days, so the client laptops were generally expected to connect to an Ethernet cable to be able to do anything… not a very practical solution.

What a Difference a Decade Makes
Jump forward ten years, and the situation has changed dramatically because we have a whole new class of devices to work as thin clients: our phones.

Unlike the previous failed concept of the thin client, these are simple computers that we want to carry with us everywhere. And with just a couple of additions can be really good laptop alternatives.

Remote-access software like LogMeIn is the obvious starting point. With it, your phone can do most of what your PC can do. If you’re away from the office and need to modify a spreadsheet or mail someone a file you can pull out your iPhone or Touch Pro2, connect to your desktop PC, and just do it right there. This doesn’t require you lugging a laptop with you everywhere, just your phone.

Obviously, there are limitations in this. While doing a quick task or two on a 3.5-inch display is acceptable, no one is going to sit down and work for 6 hours that way. You want a large screen and full-size keyboard.

Rather than scrap the concept, I’d like to extend the capabilities of the hardware a bit. Several companies have put out high-end phones with video-out ports. I’d like to see these become common, if not universal. I’d also like to see the USB ports on phones start to support keyboards and mice.

With all of these in play, you could put your phone down on a desk, plug in a keyboard and monitor, run some remote-access software, and it would be just like you’re working in your own office. The files you had open on your PC would even still be there. Plus, your shoulder wouldn’t be tired because you’d been lugging a laptop with you on the trip.

Let’s take it to the next level. You could have a phone with a pico-projector, providing you with a large monitor virtually anywhere you go. This isn’t science-fiction — you can get the LG eXpo right now.

And maybe even throw in a laser-projection keyboard, if those ever become practical.

You could be sitting in an airport using a device the size of a deck of cards and weighing under a pound to do everything you currently carry around a heavy laptop to do.

Let Your Phone Be a Phone
I don’t think I’m alone in wanting my phone to be as powerful as my PC. But as more PC-like features are added to phones, they may become better mobile computers, but they also become worse phones.

One of the advantages of using a phone as a thin client is this arrangement doesn’t force it to try and act like a PC. Rather than installing word processors, spreadsheets, and database applications, the phone can just have a remote-access application that lets me easily control my desktop computer, which can handle the hard work.

This frees up the designers of the phone’s user interface to concentrate on making the phone-related features as good as they can be. It’s a win-win. A phone that’s also a thin-client is a better phone and a power PC.


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