Thin client computing was a concept that one-time technology leaders Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy were convinced would take over the market. Ten years later, Oracle is long gone from this market and Sun appears to be weeks away from going under.
To say that thin client computing missed expectations would be like saying "Plan 9 From Outer Space" missed getting an Oscar. However, the concept's potential has always been attractive. Earlier I argued why Google's approach with Chrome OS would fail. (I have no doubt that it will change the market much as Netscape did. I just questioned whether its approach would be successful for Google). The idea of personal computers that are as reliable as the typewriters they replaced has, since the beginning, been a top user requirement that remains unmet. This idea of an appliance PC is particularly timely this week on the news that Apple is voiding warranties for cigarette smokers because of the damage this smoke does to electronics. (Kind of makes you suddenly a lot happier about the elimination of smoking on airlines, doesn't it?)
This time, let's look at how the Chrome OS could succeed.
The reason that thin clients failed was that vendors didn't learn from the successes of the PC market. This came down to two words: "common standards." Every thin client solution was different and upgrading the network, servers and clients was extremely expensive. And after you were done, you were tied at the hip to a vendor that might not survive, could name its price for support and to a solution whose future was anything but certain. Chrome OS largely hits it out of the park on this one: It is hardware independent and the implementation cost should be relatively low and handled easily by a variety of networking vendors. As I mentioned before, it will have issues with the state of the mobile network market, but it at least embraces the concept of a wireless solution, while most thin client products never seemed to.
OEM Dissatisfaction with Microsoft
Over the past 15 years, Microsoft has lost much of the loyalty it built in its first decade with OEMs by being heavy-handed and not very responsive to their needs. As Microsoft increasingly focused on the enterprise, it forgot that the foundation of its success was leverage gained from OEMs, and these companies have been aggressively looking for a replacement for Windows for some time. Granted Windows 7 has improved this relationship somewhat, but feelings like these take years to overcome. Once customers start looking for an alternative, I'm not aware of a case where they ever really stop. Google has positioned itself as the likely alternative to Microsoft and positioned Chrome OS as the strong alternative to Windows 7 Starter Edition, a product that OEMs and retailers don't appear to like. An early indicator is how well the Chrome Browser is doing on Windows 7 on a netbook. This is solid positioning because it hits Microsoft where it is weakest -- on both product and relationship.
While I pointed to strategic focus on user needs as a bad thing when it comes to building for a future market, it's a good thing once a product is established. When Microsoft shifted its focus to corporate buyers, it effectively lost track of the user, who then floated over to other popular products like the iPhone and started dragging them in to enterprises rather than the latest version of Windows. As a result, enterprises started to fall generations behind the desktop technology curve. Users, not IT buyers, drive desktop technology adoption and these users likely will be the ones bringing Chrome OS into the enterprise -- assuming it is successful. Granted, this will be a fight, but one that the iPhone has shown can be won by the user. It is very likely that Google eventually will license its back end to enterprise customers and might even seek partners such as EMC, IBM, or HP to help with these efforts. If so, they could be in a company near you before you know it, and your users might be wondering why you missed this boat.
With Chrome OS, Google deals with the shortcomings of products that came before it. If it can change course and execute against the potential of this platform, Google could have a good run with this offering. There are a lot of ifs, though, and given the number of people who have tried a new OS and failed, ranging from IBM to NeXT to Novell, this won't be easy. In the end, though, the market wants something like Chrome OS, and markets eventually get what they want. The question is whether it will be Google, Microsoft or some other company that supplies it.