The Problem of Thin Clients

Google’s announcement of Chrome OS has brought the idea of the thin client back into focus. Simply put, a thin client is a computer workstation that runs very limited software—sometimes just a browser—to connect the user to a server (or the cloud) that does all the heavy-lifting.

Thin clients offer several advantages that make them a good solution in some cases. Thin clients mean cheaper hardware, lighter network traffic and a uniform user experience across machines.

Of course, the thin client requires a server or cloud service on the other end. In Google’s case, their services include email, word processing, photo galleries, news and more. Often in professional environments, the clients (especially Windows-based clients) often include a handful of apps—usually Microsoft Office—with everything else on the server, with no way to install other applications. Hence, if users need a service that’s not on the local machine, they have to use a web application.

The problem of thin clients—and most web applications—is that they aren’t rich.

A recent example is the iPhone OS. Before the iPhone SDK, Apple told developers to build web apps. Basically, web apps are websites formatted to fit the iPhone screen and optimized to use multi-touch. Today, a year after the App Store has opened, they’re tons and tons of apps written in Cocoa that run natively on the iPhone, doing things that were impossible to do in MobileSafari. Before the App Store, Twitter users had to use sites like, Hahlo, or Logpost. Compared to iPhone clients like Tweetie, Twitterrific and Birdfeed, those web apps are piles of crap.

The browser—even the best browsers in the world—just can’t pull off the same tricks real, OS-based applications can.* Take iLife for example. No web app can match iMovie or iPhoto’s power. Even simple things like OS X’s built-in mail application is nicer and fuller than Gmail. I’m not sure people are ready to give up the niceties that come with having a real OS under their applications. And until that changes, I’m not sure Chrome OS—or any other thin clients—will be a threat to any desktop OS.


*Of course, HTML 5 will add all sorts of goodies, and WebKit-based
browsers will support it, but it’s still not the same.