When Written: April 2007
The other day I was sitting watching the BBC’s ‘The Money Program’ on my newly installed Windows Vista Media Centre, which is a huge improvement over the XP version, and by improvement I mean it works and has stayed working for more that a couple of days!. This particular episode of The Money Program was about Microsoft and the UK launch of Vista.
I was sitting there boring my viewing partners with my almost schoolboy cries of ‘I’ve been there!’ and ‘I know him / her!’ However, despite my interruptions, it was interesting to see behind the scenes of such a launch although I must confess that the ‘WOW’ catch phrase that the advertising agency had come up with had escaped me until this program pointed it out. Surprised friends said that it was plastered all over web sites as banner adverts. It seems that my ability to ‘tune’ out banner adverts on web sites must have reached almost Jedi levels! During the program the point was made that this might be the last big Operating System launch, as in the future such upgrades will be done via downloads rather than people buying a packaged product from their favourite ( or otherwise ) computer retailer. This got me thinking about the possible future of computing.
As regular readers of this column will know I have been enthusing about the variety of web applications that are springing up. These applications run on the servers and use a web browser to provide the user interface, but do so in such a way that the application behaves more like a traditional program. To achieve this partial rendering of areas of the web page is used, rather than a standard web site where, after every user confirmation, the whole page is redrawn, often going blank as the refreshed page is downloaded. These web applications are not just cool quirky applications but many are refined tools that can be used to do real jobs as showed by the excellent Google apps which give the user a word processor, spreadsheet and many other programs.
The clever bit about this technology is that the applications run using the user’s browser for the user interface and the server for all the backend stuff, without any programs being installed on the user’s machine. If future applications were developed this way then a typical office machine would need nothing more than a browser installed for the user to do all that they need to get their work done. The corresponding operating system on the user’s workstation could be very simple, just enough to run the browser, no need for a fancy search system like the one that Visa boasts, because the web server will take care of that. Perhaps it will be many years before we see programs like Photoshop appearing in this format but for a lot of the day to day office type tasks these applications could offer a different solution which would run on light weight low spec devices.
For the people like Paul ‘road warrior’ Ockenden of this magazine they can be a real boon when out and about. However, could this solution be used in an average office? Why not? The main problem I see to taking this route, is what would happen if the internet connection went down? Perhaps everyone could take some quality time and relax and chill out with work colleagues? Perhaps not, but a solution to this problem of a broken / slow internet connection could be to use a proxy server which the users connect to and the proxy then connects to the internet. Now we have had proxy servers for a long time, these traditionally fetch a web page from the internet the first time a user on the local network requests it and store this page and its images locally. The next user who requests the same web page will get the cached local copy if the proxy has not detected that the remote web page has changed. A lot of large organisations and many ISPs use such technology to take the load off their internet connection. What I’m suggesting is that a Web Applications Ready Proxy ( WARP server perhaps? ) would be able to download and install the remote web application so that it might run on the local server. Users could then use the web application over their local network which would run much faster and no longer be reliant on the internet connection. Files and data could be stored locally on rather than out on the internet somewhere. Not many companies would allow their data to be held at Google say. The caching of web applications on the proxy server would have to be done in such a way as to protect the source code, but encrypting it in a similar way to compiling an application should solve this problem.
Should such a system come about then all a lot of users would need would be a very simple light weight operating system with a browser. With such a device then they would be able to do all their work, no need for hardware or operating system upgrades to run the latest programs, support would become easier. The reason most of us upgrade a working system is so as to run a particular application that needs the upgrade, transparency on windows and clever user interface tricks are all good fun but don’t improve productivity and are of little concern to most companies. With web applications running on the server, it is the server which would need any hardware upgrades, or perhaps another server added to the farm if performance became an issue, the user’s desktops stay the same. Of course certain applications may be take a long time to migrate to this route and users of these will still have their powerful desktops, but for a lot of standard business applications this could well be a route that would prove popular.
I know in the past we had talk of thin clients and Terminal servers. Thin client solutions try to run an instance of the operating system on the server and then display that within another operating system on the desktop, all very clunky but web applications offer a different and much more scalable solution. They have already proved themselves on various web sites and have shown that they are capable of handling thousands of users at any one time. Perhaps this is pie in the sky? Or perhaps someone is already working on this?
Article by: Mark Newton
Published in: Mark Newton