It is interesting to watch major shifts in the technology market emerge. Often it takes two or three tries before a good idea can become a great offering. Take tablets, for instance. A few companies had them in the early 80s, but outside of some limited health care implementations, they didn’t go anyplace. Then, Microsoft made a big tablet push in the early part of last decade. After some initial excitement, the category all but died until Steve Jobs brought out the iPad. That device made us all run around declaring the PC is dead, but it isn’t.
The Brain Dead Thin Client
The same can be said of thin clients. Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison saw that PCs sucked in the 1980s, and, frankly, they were right. The damn things were heavy, expensive, unreliable, unsecure, and many of us would have liked to have tossed them over a wall. But McNealy and Ellison’s ideas, while compelling, simply wouldn’t work with the then-current technology. Their solutions were underpowered, overpriced and failed spectacularly.
Part of the issue, though, was that not only couldn’t Sun and Oracle agree on what the solution should be, neither firm really cared that much about PCs. In fact, they both hated them. This would be like having two guys who didn’t get along and didn’t drive try to develop the next-generation car after hearing their parents complain about the traffic. I’ll bet it would kind of look like the rolling septic wart of a car that Google has been testing.
So the idea was good, but the execution sucked. Fixing this required a company, or companies, that loved PCs. That turned out to be Dell, NVIDIA and VMware. I wrote about this subject previously, but I think the idea of starting with a team of companies—many of which include experts in both where the technology is and where it needs to go—would be the best way to take on the thin client issue. I maintain that the reason that Sun and Oracle failed was because neither firm was a leader in PCs and no company was a leader in thin clients back then.
The Three/Four Musketeers of Revolution
What brought on the idea of a group-led development was a conversation I’d had with Dell, NVIDIA and VMware. I started to think of them as the Three Musketeers of the PC revolution. Dell brings to the table decades of PC knowledge; NVIDIA has the same duration, but depth in creating high-performance PCs and workstations; and VMware is run by Pat Gelsinger, who is a demigod of PC innovation.
I probably should expand on that last comment. I first met Gelsinger while he was still at Intel. He was one of the folks many of us hoped would eventually run that company. What made him special is that, unlike many of the Intel CEOs, he loved PCs—which I’ve often found both sad and ironic. He was at the forefront of making the designs both beautiful and powerful. The guy just seemed to get that they needed to advance aggressively or, at some point, they’d be replaced by something else. When he left Intel to join EMC, it was a sad moment, because I thought that vision for PCs would be lost forever. But then, he moved over to run VMware, took one look at VDI, and used it as a vehicle to fix much of what was broken in PCs.
NVIDIA had its amazing grid platform, which brought scale to performance cloud personal computing and Dell was deeply penetrated in both gaming (via Alienware) and workstations—the beachhead that the combination of all of the firms was going to establish.
But the Musketeers needed a D’Artagnan, someone who understood thin client technology in depth. Dell came through with Wyse, a firm Dell had purchased, and it was expert in successful thin client computing.
Even though the Wyse name is gone, the firm remains largely intact and incredibly valuable, thanks to Dell’s unique approach to mergers and acquisitions. Unlike most companies that focus on integrating the new firm with the old, Dell focused on preserving what it paid for. This is one of those really strange things in the market. If this were food, Dell would put the food in the refrigerator or freezer to preserve it, while others would pile it up on the dining table to make it easier to shove in their mouths, and most of the food (or in this instance, the acquired firms) would spoil.
So in the end, you have expertise in where the technology is, expertise in where it needs to go, and expertise in software and graphics to assure that the solution’s plumbing can actually work. This is the basis for the first ISV-certified virtual workstation appliance, and it won’t be long until we are all wondering why we didn’t move to this solution years ago.
Wrapping Up: The Lesson of the Four Tech Musketeers
So next time you see a vendor or collaboration of vendors talking about bringing out a game-changing technology, ask yourself whether they know the game they plan to change, if they have expertise in the anticipated result, and whether they have component experts or partners that know how to make it all work. If they are missing any part of this, their efforts are likely a pipe dream and will never deliver the promised results. You’d be better off watching it blow up from a distance.
A lot of folks are trying for revolutions at the moment; few have the appropriate skills or partners to actually bring that revolution about. And being on the losing side of a revolution can be very painful and expensive.
Now you just need to decide if you want a revolution—I’ll be damned if the Beatles didn’t get this right.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+