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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…ARE WE READY FOR A TRIP BACK IN COMPUTER TIME?Published in Can you find it Business Edition on Sunday, May 1st 2015
A COUPLE of weeks ago I was contacted by a company in Lancashire who are offering ‘virtual networks’ to small companies, writes Joel Teague of Teagus.

The idea is not a new one, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it packaged as a cost-comparable alternative to a conventional Local Area Network.

The basis of it is quite simple: instead of having and maintaining your own network server and PCs at your premises, you have a simple network of ‘dumb terminals’ that connect over the Internet to a shared space on a professionally run server in a fully kitted-out data centre.

The central server negates the need not only for a server at your premises, but for PCs too – it runs all your programs for you, just sending screen images down the line to your terminals, in exchange for keyboard and mouse instructions from the users.

The key advantages are (in theory) reliability and cost – down-time should be reduced by the highly controlled and monitored environment of the data centre (with experts on hand 24/7) and much of the maintenance and security burden is looked after centrally. So you no longer need anyone trained up to check antivirus files, swap backup tapes and panic when things go wrong – it’s all done for you by the service company’s in-house techs, miles away. All you have to do is keep the printers fed with paper and ink.

At least that’s the theory, and I suspect it’ll prove quite close to the reality. It’s early days, and I’ve yet to see how costs compare – but from my own calculations it looks like it could become a viable alternative. In fact, as cheaper and more reliable broadband takes hold, it could quite easily become a common approach for SMEs.

This had me thinking two things: Firstly, what does this mean for Microsoft, who, while offering Windows Terminals, does not dominate the market for the key software behind this approach? Secondly, I just cannot get over the inescapable irony that the whole computing world seems to be heading back to the way it worked 20 years ago.

I don’t think we need to start sending donations to Mr Gates just yet. Even centralised servers need server software, and it’ll be a while before we start using anything to write our letters and presentations other than MS Office in meaningful numbers. Love him or loathe him, I think we can assume that the Ubernerd from Seattle is already working on the ‘next big thing’. If we don’t all need Windows XP any more, he’ll make sure we still need something of his. (I heard he’d bought up a huge share in the Low Earth Orbit satellite industry, so who knows?)

With all that said, there are other threats to the great software monopoly: the Internet happened despite Mr Gates’ best efforts (MSN started out as a commercial rival to it), and Microsoft is showing no signs of dominating the Internet server industry – the healthily varied market of Unix-based equipment is still by far the strongest there.

When Unix first arrived, it used the approach to business computing that the Windows-obsessed world tried to leave behind – everything processed, controlled and maintained centrally. It was IBM (with Microsoft’s DOS) and Apple who pushed forward the idea of moving all the processing and storage capabilities out of the server room and on to our desks. Will we look back on it as a huge, failed experiment?

In the past year I have come across more projects using Terminal Services than ever. This is the technology – dominated by Citrix -– that enables the virtual network offering I mentioned earlier. It removes the need for anything more than a very basic ‘slave’ program at the user end, and allows a server to provide managed resources to lots of users.

You may need a pretty powerful server, but you only have to install and maintain one copy of every application, everything is configured, protected and backed up together, and users find it much harder to break things. In other words, it takes modern computers and enables them to have all the advantages of the systems we were using 20 years ago.

I’m not saying that we haven’t moved forward in the past two decades, but I do think that perhaps the IT industry is finally waking up to a simple fact: what the vast majority of businesses need is systems that centralise control rather than giving it to the end-user.

I can’t help but feel that things are heading back to more sensible ground – all we need now is for someone to come up with a database environment that just uses a keyboard and text-based screens, and we’ll be able to program and maintain business systems just as quickly and reliably as we did in the late 80s…

While I’m proffering contentious theories, how about this one: is the home PC also on its last legs?

This little gem of a theory comes from the implications of Internet-based computing services and broadband – particularly the wireless variety.

Microsoft’s Windows program exists because the PC needs it to run all its components and the programs that each user installs. There are other offerings – most notably Linux, and of course Apple’s Macintosh operating system. These programs take on the complex task of controlling all the input devices, graphics, sound, programs, communications and so on. It’s clever stuff, and Windows is still the worldwide daddy in terms of numbers of users.

So what happens if you don’t need it all any more? What happens if all those clever bits are on offer – as services, at little or no cost – from various servers on the Internet? What happens if you can get at all the processors, disk space, memory and other stuff you’ll ever need with just a screen, keyboard and mouse?

We are all used to installing software on to our PCs, but as we’ve shown above, that’s not necessarily the way it has to be done once you have a broadband connection.

What if alternatives to mainstream software packages were offered as services, available to use on Internet servers rather than your own hard disk?

Well, it’s already happening – it’s just not quite ready for us yet. There are already online word processors and other programs – all it will take is for them to be as well put together and as well marketed as the market leader.

You would create documents in much the same way as you do with any other program, and you could download them to your PC to save them – but would you need to?

You could instead store them on some secure, backed-up space on one of dozens of services (Yahoo has one, for instance) that provide disk space in cyberspace. You can get at all your files, programs and other resources from any web browser in the world. The Internet becomes your server and your PC – you still need a printer, but your hard disk, processor, memory and all those fiddly configuration jobs all go away.

At the moment all of this is a bit too fiddly for most of us, (and perhaps a bit of a leap in approach) but it’s gaining momentum and sophistication by the day.

Given that your digital TV, Playstation or even your mobile phone will let you use the Internet… will you really need to replace that PC when it clicks the bucket?

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