The new diet that Computing's on

Ben Thompson had a piece today on his site Stratechery which talked about fat and thin clients: 1

For 25 years users typically relied on one general purpose fat client PC that was capable of accomplishing a wide range of tasks. The beneficiaries, of course, were Microsoft, who owned the dominant fat client operating system, and Intel, which provided the ever-improving performance.

That advantage is famously slipping away – or rather, falling off a cliff – in the face of tablets, (literally) thin devices with a new input method – touch – and new operating systems designed for different use cases and constraints.

For me the interesting part of this is that it appears to be the next step in the thin client / fat client cycle.

It depends how thick a brush you’re painting with, but there’s definitely a cyclical nature to this paradigm of computing. Some people see it happening with greater frequency. Others argue that we’re moving towards a synthesis, where clients will become neither fat nor thin. Mesomorphic clients!

Personally, I think we have a few more iterations left before it all averages out into one giant galaxy-wide computer with millions of terminals. I don’t think it makes sense to get too granular with this idea, because it breaks down at small scale. If you drill down too far you’re not identifying trends, you’re just accumulating micro-anecdotes.

I think the cycle so far (for computers, as we define them) has gone something like this:

FAT: Early computers, including Babbage’s Analytical engine, the abacus, the Turing machine, the Colossus computers, etc.

THIN: Terminals connecting to a mainframe which held programs, data, etc.

FAT: The PC, as noted above.

THIN: iPads. Ben describes these as belonging to a new “thin architecture” which houses a greater number of devices per user:

Today’s thin clients, on the hand, specialize. A pure tablet is superior for touch-based applications; a pure PC is superior for keyboard-and-mouse ones.

It always struck me as a jarring element of most Sci-Fi that technological devices always become so generic in the future. Everything works with everything, and there’s rarely any talk of brand.2 You get the impression that all of these tech doodads were mass produced in one behemoth factory.

I think we’re quite far from one company being able to hold a monopoly on every gadget we own. One of the reasons Apple is so successful is that they specialize — one of the reasons Microsoft is ailing is because they didn’t, (or didn’t soon enough).

Right now we’re experiencing an exciting part of the fat / thin cycle. Tipping points like this always seem to engender some great new technologies. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

  1. Wikipedia: “A thin client (sometimes also called a lean or slim client) is a computer or a computer program which depends heavily on some other computer (its server) to fulfill its computational roles. This is different from the traditional fat client, which is a computer designed to take on these roles by itself.” 

  2. For computing technology, at least. Branding weapons is de rigueur for Sci-Fi. Ever heard of BlasTech Industries