What’s your perfect device? Are you a BlackBerry, iPhone or Android fan? Are you wedded to your MacBook or Windows notebook? Do you see the iPad and the myriad slates that will follow as the future of client computing? Chances are, you have an opinion. You care about devices.
But surely with everything supposedly moving into the cloud, the devices you use to access your internet-based applications and data are not that important. Provided they run a browser, who cares?
If you put idealism and purism to one side, however, different form factors meet different requirements simply from an interaction perspective. If you are composing or manipulating content in a big way, you probably want a decent screen or screens, a keyboard and a mouse. If you want lightweight business communications and document handling on the road, slates fit the bill pretty well. Just messaging and casual content related activity? That's smartphone territory.
Depending on what we are doing, we prefer a different size and shape of device, with different interaction, input and output capability.
The other consideration is local processing power and storage capacity. Even with pervasive wireless networks, we are still a long way from having a guaranteed fast and stable connection when out and about. The ability to access at least some of the applications and content we want when disconnected will therefore remain a requirement for some time. When composing an email or watching a video on the train, you don’t want your device to drop out.
Local device processing capability can also affect the user experience. Even on a reliable network with a lot of back-end horsepower, if all execution is server-side, network bandwidth constraints and latency can limit the quality of graphics and video, as well as overall responsiveness.
Yet in theory most of the devices we use, even the so-called dumb ones, still have quite a bit of processing and graphics capability. Even when just accessing web content with a browser, our device is doing a lot of work locally – compressing and decompressing content, rendering graphics and even executing application components that are automatically downloaded and run in the browser environment.
Beyond the browser, there is the "app for that" phenomenon. In this model the user is consciously downloading applications to run locally, even though many are simply front ends for web-based services. This is despite the fact that lots of people are holding up the iPhone, iPad and similar as examples of devices designed for the cloud computing era.
But if the client device at the edge of the cloud is doing so much work, does that negate a lot of the benefits touted by cloud advocates? Many of these concern the centralisation of complexity; yet the way things are going, the client side is, if anything, becoming more complex.
Now, if a developer wants to enable that optimised and robust user experience across a range of devices for different user needs and preferences, they must build, deploy, maintain and support multiple versions of the client component – for the iPhone, iPad, Android devices, Symbian devices, Windows phones and anything else that becomes popular, not to mention the good old PC and Mac platforms.
So we are seeing a resurgence in client/server computing. Although it is mobile apps accessing web services in the cloud rather than PC front ends talking to database back ends, the consequences are the same from a cost and complexity perspective.
As old principles and ideas resurface, we must be careful not to forget the lessons of the past – in this case to do with managing complex distributed client/server landscapes.
More to the point for resellers, hardware, management software and services relating to the client side of the equation will still be very much in demand, even as organisations consider cloud options. When you hear the cloud mentioned, don’t take it as a threat to your traditional business: it could represent an interesting opportunity.
Dale Vile is research director at Freeform Dynamics
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