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The Thin Client
October 2005

Two weeks of a late summer holiday in a remote cottage without television, laptop or internet, and the only phone being an intermittent and unreliable mobile, gave me plenty of time to ponder the future of our digital world. I've decided that our best bet is to get rid of it all.

I don't mean stop using it - just get it out of the house. I'm fed up with the hardware and software of my computer being corrupted or becoming obsolete, and I want someone else to cope with all that. It's all down to "Thin Clients", and they are the future.

I'll explain. "Thin Client" is a curious bit of industry jargon; what it means is that the only pieces of computer equipment that you have at home are the bits you actually touch to operate the thing - keyboard, CD drive, screen, loudspeaker. All the rest, the clever stuff, is somewhere else, perhaps abroad (or even in space?); and you connect to it through the Internet and rent space on it.

If this sounds fanciful, remember that you already use this technique for your telephone - all the cunning tackle is held at the exchange, and is maintained there, and all you have on your desk is a handset and a keypad to contact it. That's why phones are so cheap - there's nothing much in them, and the real cost is in using all that equipment in the exchange.

There is no reason why personal computing should not go exactly the same way. At present, massive computing power is duplicated in all our houses and offices, and most of it is idle most of the time. How much more efficient for us to share, with thousands of other people, a huge, faster and more adaptable computer?

It would store all our data, so we will never run out of space (put aside worries about privacy for the moment - that can be dealt with, I promise) and will back up everything to other computers in distant locations so that it is safe from any physical disaster. All the software we want will be available to rent, will be managed and installed by experts, and kept bang up to date. If problems arise, there will be engineers and standby machines on hand.

In theory, you would notice no difference to what you have now, except that it should work faster and break down less often. You would be able to use your own personal computer from any terminal with an Internet connection; just log on and suddenly you would have your familiar screen in front of you, with all your files. All you will lack are the post-it notes stuck on your screen at home. This is not farfetched stuff - a lot of larger organisations already provide this sort of remote access so that their staff can work effectively at home, or on the road.

It does, however, depend completely on the constant and reliable availability of very high speed broadband connections, using both land lines and mobile phone style connections. A bit of a pipe dream at the moment, but it will come, believe me; we take for granted that our telephone will work, and are astonished when it doesn't - in due course we will feel the same about our Broadband connection.

I also predict that these developments will encourage a terrific price war, as we will be able to use any company in the world to provide this service. I think we can hope, eventually, to get it for about a fiver a month. And the sooner the better.