The Return Of The Thick Client

The New York Times has an article up about how faster chips are leaving programmers in the dust. In short, all these multi-core CPU’s coming out are really hard to program against. Programmers have to write "parallel programs" to fully take advantage of the additional lanes on the CPU highway that AMD & Intel are laying down. It’s complex stuff and Microsoft is putting some of its biggest brains on it.

powerline One of the hottest topics in technology today is the advent of utility computing. Increases in bandwidth and computing power has many industry observers asserting that the bulk of the CPU labor doesn’t really need to happen on the PC under your desk. Services like Google Docs & Spreadsheets and have proven that you can deliver a lot of the common computing tasks in a centralized way. No more installation DVD’s. Just visit a URL and start using centrally hosted software.

It’s pretty damn convenient. But in its current incarnation, its drastically lacking the richness and highly interactive experience associated with desktop applications. Anyone who’s used Excel 2007 and Google spreadsheets notices the difference almost immediately. Of course, Google spreadsheets is brand new and running in your browser. So it’s not exactly a fair race…yet.

For Microsoft, it makes a hell of a lot of sense to invest heavily in optimizing their software to run as close to the metal as possible. Today, Google is investing in the web browser as the "platform" to deliver their applications. That’s going to have to give at some point if they seriously want to compete with Microsoft. No matter how much you trick out Ajax, it’s not going to come anywhere the power and capabilities of applications like Microsoft Word and Apple’s Keynote, for example.

So where does this leave the promise of rich internet applications (RIA’s)? I tend to agree that applications will stop being installed on DVD’s and CD’s. Boxed software will undoubtedly go away. But the delivery mechanism doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s still the issue of "platform." If CPU’s are outpacing software development, Javascript, AJAX and the plethora of browsers that sort of play nice are just going to end up playing catch up. They’re way too high up on the stack to realistically leverage advances in hardware.

If we’re truly looking to marry the power of rich software with the reach of the Internet, then we have to look to the players that have viable platforms that can continue to evolve and stay in lock-step (or at least near lock-step) with the ever-accelerating pace of hardware: Microsoft and Adobe. In Adobe’s last Flash update (Update 3), they’ve added multi-core CPU support. You can also bet that Microsoft’s Vista and Silverlight will also play close attention to taking advantage of the latest hardware features.

The challenge for Google – if its really serious about going after Microsoft’s bread-and-butter productivity software business – is to somehow find a way to lock into and take advantage of a platform that is: (a) universally available and (b) malleable enough to scale up and evolve as hardware improves.

Two years ago, I half-jokingly argued that Microsoft should buy Adobe. At the end of the post, I winked that Google should buy Adobe instead. I agree that we’re headed towards massive server farms and a world of utility computing but that trend shouldn’t be confused with the clear competitive advantage of delivering powerful software to the desktop. Think Photoshop. Think mind-blowing 3D games. They can all make it over the wire…but you still need that rig – and the platform that knows how to take advantage of it – under your desk. 

2 Comments The Return Of The Thick Client

  1. Annette Nueske

    There are Microsoft hosting partners, such as ITonCommand, who are delivering the feature-rich applications in the Microsoft suite in a fully-hosted Windows desktop model. And, ITonCommand can host most other business software as well. Through a simple broadband connection, subscribers login to a Windows desktop complete with start button, Outlook with Exchange, Microsoft Office Standard Edition, corporated file structure, the works!
    What’s more, subscribers don’t have to contend with managing network security or performing time consuming software updates, patches and fixes. It’s all part of the service offering.
    So, you can have your cake and eat it too. Learn more at

  2. H.J. Handelé

    Dear Sir /Madam,
    I was wondering how you got that picture on your internetsite (with the pylons)
    It is a picture i made several years ago.
    Do you have any copyright to use that picture?
    I don’t think so.
    For me it’s OK to use it. But please next time when you use a picture, beware of the copyright, or use your own picture(s) please.
    Kind reagards.
    H.J. Handelé
    Arnhem, The Netherlands


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