Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/06/30/wyse_kish/

Wyse targets TVs, PCs and phones with 'thin-client-on-a-chip'

Thin client hype extends to new markets

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Hardware, 30th June 2006 20:06 GMT

Wyse Technology has gathered the courage to direct the thin client industry through yet another "rebirth." Next month, the company will unveil something it's calling a "thin client-on-a-chip." This product will be able to turn just about everything from TVs, monitors and printers into true thin clients. Perhaps more importantly, Wyse has crafted new software packages to go along with the chip, which really do give thin clients the look and feel of regular PCs.

The Register this week got the exclusive first look at Wyse's hardware and software pairing, during a visit to the company's San Jose headquarters. Exact details on who is making the chip, what the new systems running on the product will be called and how much they will cost remain thin. Still, we managed to excise a few salient facts out of Wyse CEO John Kish, CTO Curt Schwebke and VP Jeff McNaught.

Yes, we got the full treatment.

The thin client-on-a-chip, which ships in volume during the fourth quarter, will sit at the heart of a refreshed Wyse product line. The six-core chip is based on an ARM 9 design and will be able to handle a wide variety of software loads, including graphics demanding applications and the power-hungry Vista operating system from Microsoft. Wyse expects to pay about $50 per chip and plans to deliver thin clients using the device priced lower than $225.

During our visit, Wyse showed off one prototype system running on the new chip. The total package for the box was a bit larger than a pack of cards. It's a combination of the small size of the new systems along with their lower costs that will help Wyse enter new markets, according to Kish.

"Once you have a thin client-on-a-chip, there is no reason it can't go into anything," he said. "The first release will be into monitors and printers. And, from there, it will move into devices like cell phones."

The Wyse pitch here is pretty interesting.

On one front, the company picks up on the argument that developing nations will lean toward mobile devices and trimmed down computers rather than full-fledged PCs as they build out their infrastructure. Wyse thinks it can team with monitor and TV makers to ship low-cost, useful devices to peoples' homes. Service providers may even subsidize the hardware in order to get consumers locked into their goods over the long-term.

"In China and India, we don't have to replace the home PC because there isn't one," Kish said. "People will buy TV, computer and video-on-demand systems all rolled into one."

Then, Wyse hopes to open up a second front where it can sell very capable thin clients to hotels, stores, schools and corporate customers. Hotels, for example, could stop their embarrassing internet through the TV services and offer customers a TV/thin client instead. Slap a server or two in the hotel "data center," and you're good to go. Meanwhile, corporate customers can expect affordable and very PC-like thin client systems able to handle applications such as streaming video and Photoshop.

If you eyes weren't rolling at the start of the story, they probably are now.

Yes, we are writing about a new level of thin client promise before the original thin client promise has even arrived. This is all about extending thin client hype to new markets. Gotta love it.

As most of you know, companies - some of them very large - have been pushing thin clients for years in the hopes of advancing a non-PC agenda. The likes of Oracle and Sun Microsystems usually spring to mind first, as do their shattered dreams. Despite hawking thin clients for years, Sun can barely be seen in the thin client sales figures from market researchers.

Wyse, by contrast, has concocted a decent-sized business. At close to a 1m units shipped in 2005, it accounted for 40 per cent of the whole thin client market, beating out HP and Neoware. All told, Wyse is bringing in close to $200m per year in revenue, according to Kish, and has aspirations to become a $1bn company by 2009.

A realist, Kish knows that hardware sales won't be the driving force behind reaching the $1bn goal.

"People have just seen thin clients as having hardware value," Kish said. "That value declines over time. It's not about the device itself. It's about how it interacts with the network."

In the past, thin client makers have presented their systems as safer, quieter, cheaper and easier to manage than PCs. You simply hand the worker or consumer a stateless device with no moving parts and let an administrator take care of all the management dirty work from one spot in the data center.

With all these benefits on their side, thin clients makers have only been able to capture a small fraction of the PC market where close to 100m units are sold every year.

Kish, however, thinks that will change thanks, in part, to Wyse's software efforts.

To complement existing management packages, Wyse released Streaming Manager in March.

We had a look at this software, and it's pretty impressive. Administrators load up all the applications they want to make available to users on a central server. They can then pick and choose which applications particular users can access and, obviously, upload new applications from a central point, as needed.

When a user clicks on an application icon, their thin client begins to "stream" that application from the server and actually lets the application temporarily sit on their thin client device, improving overall performance. Companies can also create reports on all the applications used by their employees for help assessing licensing contracts.

Streaming Manager is not mind-bending stuff, but it's a nice, clean application that makes controlling a lot of thin clients, applications and users easy.

Following the release of its thin client-on-a-chip, Wyse plans to take the software story to the next level. The chip hardware along with some complementary code from Wyse will make it possible to run just about anything found on a PC on a thin client. During a demo, CTO Schwebke showed 16 separate videos streaming onto one of the new thin client devices, and we're told it can stretch up to 32 simultaneous feeds. In addition, the new chip has VoIP and a "well-known graphics engine" built-in.

With all of this gear, customers "won't be able to tell the difference between a thin client and a top PC," Kish said. "That gets rid of a big, past criticism about thin clients."

In addition, Kish thinks the prevalence of myriad high-bandwidth networks has made a potential thin client boom possible.

"The PC was designed from the ground up not to have a network," Kish said. "That made a lot of sense in a time when network availability was sporadic and not very rich. It doesn't make sense anymore."

It's so easy to become enchanted by the thin client pitch. The model makes an incredible amount of sense on paper.

Ultimately, however, consumers in the PC-saturated parts of the world have proved reluctant to send their hard drive off into the ether. And, while networks have improved, they've hardly reached the point where one would give up on the ability to do off-line work at home.

Businesses too have spent so much time sucking from Wintel's golden teat that they don't have the courage or the time to uproot their computing infrastructure just to suck off a teat of a different color, even if the teat is very quiet.

These negatives though might not have much impact on Wyse's future business model. Sure, it will continue to serve businesses and schools with "classic" thin client systems if they want them. But Wyse wants to charge after the "billions of units not millions of units world," according to Kish. That will require great success in young markets, some innovative service providers and most of all the customer desire to have a thin client crammed into a TV or a printer.

We can see how people might want all that, but we're not convinced thin client makers will take the lead in delivering it.

Still, congratulations go to Wyse for getting the hard work done. It will soon have the chip and the software it needs. Then, it's time to start selling more vision and keep the fingers crossed. ®