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Helixes, Spirals and Staircases



When thinking about how application platforms have evolved over the last 40 years, the image that comes to mind is that of a spiral staircase, or helix. While others may talk about circles or pendulums, with the principles of IT shifting back and forth, the reality is that technology capabilities and benefits increase at every successive turn. Remember those mainframes of the 1960s, operated with punched cards? Then the Microprocessor invention brought about the PC revolution - and created, essentially, a 'democratic' type of deployment, where distributed processing took over from centralized processing - providing new and scary amounts of computing power to every user desktop.

The advent of this desktop processing created a significant euphoria in the market as software suddenly became many times smarter. Even the simple spell-checker that we now take for granted would have once required many more times the computing capacity, and was limited to specialized "Text Processing" systems until the Desktop Client came along.

The development of Local Area Networks brought further power, functionality -- and growing complexity. As people began to realize that there was also a huge price to pay for maintaining the so-called 'Fat' Client, the euphoria began to wear off. A typical organization operating many desktops must outlay huge sums of money to install each machine and maintain it against bugs. High costs become a powerful incentive for people to look for a more efficient way.

Returning Full Circle

With the internet revolution we began to turn back to a more familiar path. Reaching out to the world with centralized portals means that the industry has now almost returned to the principle of the 'Dumb' Client -- where all major computation occurs at the Server -- and where the 'Thin' Client is named for the fact that it acts basically as a window. Having traveled full circle, today we are back at the same topology that we started with over 40 years ago, but this time the helix or spiral is at a much higher order of technological magnitude.

Rich Internet Applications (RIA) -- The Best of Both Worlds

We have not finished moving yet. While the cost of operation for the 'Thin' Client remains conveniently low, the reality is that it is limited in its operational scope, lacking the richness users have come to expect from 'Fat' Client applications.

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