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Another Perspective


"You talkin' to me?"  That's what Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, said, in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, as he practiced drawing his gun.  His thin clients included characters played by Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd.  Today every one of New York's 13,087 yellow cabs has a thin client that isn't as pretty as Foster or Shepherd.  It is a mobile computer that includes a self-service payment terminal talking to banks in the cloud by cellular radio.  Its screen displays videos so awful you wish for Bickle and his gun.  And that's just for starters.

taxi driver
You talkin' to me?
Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) had lovely thin clients
and an operating system all his own

When you are in that cab, there's a better than 50-50 shot that there's a second thin client aboard.  It is your smartphone with a live data connection or your tablet if you have one.  And there's very likely a third one, possibly a fourth, too.  Nearly every taxi driver in New York has a personal mobile phone, often a smartphone.  In addition, quite a few cabs also sport dashboard navigation devices; the newer, fancier ones have mobile Internet connectivity, too.

When you get to where you're going, or maybe before that, you might use your personal thin client, whether smartphone or tablet, to check on messages, business conditions, meeting plans, restaurant reservations, cultural matters, or any of a zillion other things you can tap with an app.  If your smartphone is a Blackberry or if it uses one of the secure smartphone messaging apps, like Lotus Mobile, your communications activities will occur inside a cloak of encryption.

Whether or not you have extra security, your client is likely to have quite a bit of potential beyond basic text (or voice) messaging.  For instance, there are smartphone apps that let you read and, in some cases, revise documents and other items attached to email, right on the phone.  In addition, your client will have a Web browser with tap and gesture controls.  You can reach through your browser to the cloud, where there are apps and Web sites just waiting to talk to you.  You can leave your office but your office might not leave you.

If your taxi ride took you to a business appointment, when you get to your destination you'll probably see some rich client computers, machines running Windows or iOS.  Take a good look.  You just might be looking at the rapidly retreating past.

The end of the PC? Didn't we only recently stop sitting shivah for the mainframe.  Remember how it didn't quite die? It turned out to be a zombie with a supernatural craving for software budgets.  The PC isn't going to die, either, but tomorrow it won't be the only choice for quite as many people.  It's already down to silver in the client Olympics and it might be heading for bronze.  See for yourself: Let's look at the numbers:

square card reader
Square Card Reader
This iconic peripheral, its app, and the payment processing service it invokes
have instantly given the suddenly ubiquitous smartphone thin client
an edge on the personal computer and the electronic cash register

This year worldwide sales of personal computers ought to be in the vicinity of 300 million units.  This turns out to be roughly the same size as the market for TV sets.  (TV sets are becoming an issue for PC makers because the snazzier models have brains and the TV makers want to displace home computers.) The PC and TV numbers are part of the market as seen by Tomi Ahonen, a former Nokia exec, who now makes a living talking about the way client devices are shaking up business.  (Question: Is Nokia Finnish? Answer: Nearly.)

Ahonen says there will be more smartphones sold this year than PCs or TVs but not yet as many as PCs plus TVs, and some pretty well respected industry analysts say that Ahonen's predictions for smartphones fall short of the mark.  A guesstimate of the size of the smartphone market for just the first quarter of this year puts it at more than 100 million units and growing.  It's possible to find bullish industry observers who peg this year's market size at half a billion smartphones.  With continued brisk growth, it's not unreasonable to believe that smartphone makers will sell a billion of their gadgets in 2015.  PCs, caught between smartphones and tablets on one side and very smart TVs on the other could get a radical haircut, but maybe not as radical as Travis Bickle's.

If you happen to be a computer nerd or a Web geek worried about how you are going to get that grey-haired IBM i or the wrinkly old mainframe in its snazzy new cabinet to serve up HTML 5 Web pages to people running Internet Explorer 9, it's high time you get down to Starbucks.  Take along your smartphone and its official app, or if you dare you can whip out your superior and slightly rebellious third party unofficial Android Coffee app.  It's time to order a double something with caffeine, plenty of caffeine because if you think PCs are your number one client device, you're way behind.

I'd be happy to help you catch up, not only with generalities like this little essay but with really specific advice.  My first lesson would show you how fast I can take your credit or debit card retainer payment using Square and a smartphone.  If you don't yet know what Square is, the lesson would be well worth the price.

By now (or if not very soon) your company's servers (or cloud systems, if some combination of fear and futurism got you to unplug your corporate iron already) are probably asking "You talkin' to me?" to about as many thin clients running the Linux variant Android or the BSD-like iOS as rich clients running Windows.  The mobile thin client population has long since exceeded the base of desktop and laptop Macs, a fact that Apple, with its 11 percent share of the PC market and a market cap bigger than IBM's, surely knows.

(The stats your Web server collects might not give you an accurate picture.  People who surf the Web might not always want to reveal they aren't at the office.  That's why there's such a boom in browser add-in spoofing tools for PCs and for smartphones.)

One of the things that is putting thin clients ahead of rich clients is a big rush to turn thin clients into payment mechanisms.  Currently, the most popular routes are the ones that can be traveled by sellers, whether merchants or service providers.  They have a big incentive and they are willing to meet buyers, their customers or clients, more than halfway.

The Impressive Atrix
The hottest concept in mobile telephony, at least until the next iPhone comes along,
Atrix docks in a gadget that provides a keyboard, mouse port, Firefox browser,
and Citrix client running in a Linux variant

Square is outstanding among several companies that are inventing new types of thin client payment technology.  Square is a newcomer and to get to the forefront it will have to push past established payment terminal companies like VeriFone.  VeriFone makes a lot of devices and backs them with an array of payment processing services.  Verifone is the nearly invisible company behind the self-service card terminal in that New York taxi I used to give your imagination a lift at the top of this story.  And it has become so worried about its cheap but powerful mobile technology eating its not-so-cheap legacy technology that it has started to split its brand, peeling off the mobile stuff as

If there's a pure hardware play in this race to extend the smartphone toward your money (or at least that promise of money called a credit card) it's Mophie, which sells iPhone card readers directly and also supplies them to others.  These others include Intuit, which is reaching out from the small business back room where it grew up, hoping to stretch past players like PayPal, which hasn't yet got all its hardware in place, and IBM, which might not know its back room franchise is vulnerable until the barbarians have eaten its dinner.

While very compact card readers are getting a lot of attention right now, they are not the only way to do business in mobile cyberspace.  Later this year, phones sporting NFC (near field communications) technology will hit the street in the United States.  Basically, NFC puts what amounts to a charge card into the kind of chip already used as an alternative to bar code labels.  The chip responds to radio signals and its response can be used as the basis of a transaction.  This sort of thing is old news in the United Kingdom, where public transit riders all pack Oyster cards, NFC devices that have almost totally replaced Underground tickets.  And in the New York metro area (and a growing number of other places), vehicle tolls are paid using E-Z Pass, another kind of NFC voucher.  The versions going into mobile phones are similar and smaller and tie back to your assets, not to some kind of dedicated account.

But why have a reader or a chip at all? PayPal, which arose long ago when Internet shopping was a novelty, is one of the outfits that can help its clients get paid via smartphone photos of checks.  And Chase bank already has a practically magic smartphone app that lets customers make deposits by capturing pictures of checks.  The images are treated like checks and the customer can put the physical check in the shredder, because the deposit process has exhausted it.  Chase is putting money on all the mobile payment horses, and has invested in Square, too.

IBM may still be looking to the past for its future, although I suspect that by now it has frightened itself with the realization that the PC might soon be as quaint as the punch card and that a lot of its legacy income still comes from systems that yearn for 80-column punch card images more than 16-digit credit card numbers.  Microsoft, king of the corporate desktop, has to be pretty scared, too.  It has decided to meet up with (or eat up) Nokia, a company that stayed at the bar long after its Symbian smartphone party ended.  As it stands, the unit volume leaders in old-fashioned computer software know things are changing but don't quite know how. 

If there is one thin client that ought to get IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, and maybe the whole of the computing and communications worlds galvanized it is a thing called the Motorola Atrix, a great idea that for the moment has been executed weakly.  (The last time Motorola had its mojo was when it built the excellent RAZR, the SX70 of cell phones, to compare it to another swan song invention.)

The Atrix is a powerful Android smartphone with a dual-core ARM-based processor.  It has a matching dock that gives it a keyboard and netbook-size screen along with some external device ports, such as USB connectors.  When it is in its dock, the Atrix phone system shows up as one window on a screen that is part of a webtop environment that is a distro of Ubuntu Linux.  The webtop on Atrix includes a full Firefox browser plus a remote desktop client that talks to Citrix Systems host software (not the standard Windows server-side RDP receiver).  Basically, Atrix is a formidable mobile client for cloud type computing.

Still, Atrix could use a little more work.  For instance, it has a weak radio.  Atrix can use AT&T's 3G network but it is deaf to the much faster LTE that AT&T is rolling out (and which is supported on other phones).  Atrix also has WiFi, so it's not totally trapped in the so-so AT&T 3G mobile data system, but that may not be enough in the mobile world, where expectations are dashing ahead.

Consequently, it is hard to see the current Atrix as other than a work in progress.  Maybe Motorola is overwhelmed, but it could hook up with some helpful partners.  One possibility is Dell, which would surely benefit from the diversification beyond Wintel a first class thin client business would provide.  Dell ought to be moving into this realm with distinctive but widely appreciated technology.  A superior Android device, like Atrix, might be just the ticket.

Hewlett-Packard was thinking about the same situation when it decided to buy Palm, which, like Motorola, had more good ideas than resources to implement them.  Microsoft might have been thinking along the same lines as it cut its mobile Windows deal with Nokia, but its idée fixe obsession with Windows may doom the project, killing Nokia and damaging Microsoft, too. 

Could IBM smell the Starbucks and move ahead at this juncture even if it isn't quite ready to pay for using an app? It's possible, I suppose.  But the creativity that is driving the Android universe, a very lively world of thin clients and their applications, has elements of love for hacking (in its ancient experimentalist meaning), something quite distinct from an obsession with hackneyed technology.  Hey Big Blue! Your customers are talkin' to ya.  Ya gonna listen?

— Hesh Wiener August 2011

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