Thin (mobile) clients considered harmful

I’ve tried to stop following the T-mobile / Microsoft Sidekick disaster, in which all customer’s data has been lost, but I can’t.  It is an example of schadenfreud.

So far, the word is that Microsoft embarked on a SAN upgrade without an adequate backup, or perhaps without an independent backup.  Sidekick devices are thin clients, which keep data only as a cache of the truth, which is on the server.

Thin client is an idea which periodically pops up. The reasoning behind thin client seems to take two forms: thin clients need less hardware, so they are cheaper, and thin clients are easier to centrally manage.  These days I suppose there might be a third issue, which is that thin clients are more secure, because they don’t contain your data when you are not there.

The “cheaper” argument really hasn’t made much sense for the last decade. Storage has been following the usual technology curves, and has become incredibly cheap. Processing power as well.  It just makes no sense to make the client stupid on the grounds that it saves money.  A related argument has been that thin clients are quieter than thick, because they can be made fanless.  We now have flash storage that is very low power.

The “centrally managed” argument has a place in the enterprise, in which IT can “provision” a workstation remotely, and employees can “hotel” by taking any available cube.  This argument doesn’t seem to apply to mobile devices like laptops or phones, however, because they usually are assigned to one person for an extended period. It definitely doesn’t apply to non-enterprise devices.

The security argument is a red herring, I think, and one that is easily corrected by a decent encrypting filesystem.  Yes, a stolen device would be susceptible to offline attacks.

Another issue is availability.  We are not always connected, at least those of use that depend on wifi and crappy cell phone networks.

I think that techn0logy trends and connectivity argue for local data. I want copies in the cloud, as backup, and available for computations out there, but I want local access as well.

My personal digital footprint now hovers around a Terabyte, and is only that large because I’ve been gathering digital copies of home video.  I have, I think, about 4 copies.  I can’t keep it all inside the laptop or iPhone yet, but I can keep all my historical email, all software I’ve ever worked on, all music I own, and all photos I own with me at all times.  I also have 10 or 20 gigabytes of public domain books, just in case I need something to read.

In a few years, all that will fit in my phone, and a few years after that, I can have the video as well.  Vernor Vinge got this right in his Marooned in Realtime, with a “pocket database” that could hold one’s digital footprint, plus plenty of reference material.

I think there is also an argument that the Sidekick architecture failed to adapt to technology trends.  Thin client might have made sense when Danger was starting, back in ought-two or whatever, but it doesn’t make sense now, with multi-gigabyte flash chips nearly free.