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Business Management

Wyse's Windows terminals co-creator looks back over 20 years

It has been 20 years since Wyse introduced its Windows terminals or thin clients although, as co-inventor Jeff McNaught recalls when I meet him in London, the first products, built into a CRT monitor, weren’t actually thin at all.

But Windows terminals changed the way many people used the most popular operating system of its time. A modest, cerebral man who now runs global marketing and strategy for the Wyse brand products at Dell, McNaught says: “We had pretty basic hopes for that and it has exceeded what we thought.”

To understand what happened you have to go back in time to a very different computing world. So we do, talking about Windows as an operating system that hit big with version 3.0 in 1990. Wyse was known for its mainframe terminals in those times and when McNaught and fellow Wyse engineer Curt Schwebke got around to figuring out how the terminals and GUI worlds might profitably collide, Windows remained a temperamental graphical environment that ran atop DOS on personal computers that cost thousands of dollars a pop.

Various approaches were being mooted to usurp Microsoft including the Larry Ellison-backed Network Computer and, a few years later, Sun’s Sun Ray Java-centric devices. Wyse’s concept was more pragmatic, however, seeking to tap the familiarity and user base of Windows with a lower price point and added controls to mitigate security risks and simplify admin. Working from San Jose, California, the product moved on apace and McNaught says he had a powerful impetus. He was one of a cadre of employees asked to help Wyse refocus and he recalls thinking: “If I don’t do this well I’m going to be working at Taco Bell in three weeks.”

The year that Wyse Winterm shipped, 1995, was a big one for Microsoft which was to bring Windows 95 (‘Start’ button, the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up on TV adverts) to market. At Comdex, the tech expo that lured masses to Las Vegas every November, Wyse’s booth was shared with that of Citrix, which at the time was a six-year-old company. The pair were to lead a symbiotic existence with Citrix creating the WinFrame server software on which Wyse’s Winterm brand-new devices relied. At Comdex, Wyse got a call from Microsoft asking for a chat about what exactly it was doing with Windows…

Given Microsoft’s predilection for legal confrontations and bagging nascent markets, I suggest that might have led to some nerves jangling. McNaught recollects there was some trepidation as he packed the bulky terminal to demo.

“I think we uttered a few expletives because we hadn’t worked with Microsoft directly but we had worked with Citrix closely and they had been anointed.”

The meeting was with Microsoft executive Paul Maritz who told McNaught and colleagues that Bill Gates and he thought the work “did hold weight” and, without using those exact words, “we’re going to let you live”.

Wyse’s approach was good for many organisations and good for Microsoft too.

“Larry Ellison really wanted to change the platform but that wasn’t what customers wanted. They wanted a lower price point and solutions that delivered high levels of security. We had encrypted communications so things like man-in-the-middle attacks were eliminated.”

Those benefits are still Wyse’s calling cards today, three years after being acquired by Dell. Another plus is energy efficiency: highly significant now that data centres account for huge electricity consumption.

Back then some bold pundits predicted the “entire world would go 100%” thin client. Others were negative but the truth has turned out to be somewhere in between and today Windows terminals remain a minority but a chunky one. At the time of the Dell-Wyse announcement, IDC calculated that thin client computing plus desktop virtualisation market would be worth over $15bn in 2015.

Since 1995, generations of Winterm thin clients have come and gone and systems have shrunk from the barely luggable to pocket-sized. They have huge appeal in tight spaces, environments where security is paramount or where staying in control of fleets of PCs has become an overwhelming IT burden. Other broader trends have worked to the advantage of terminals: the rise of security as a concern and the trend that sees offices provide drop-in IT services, for example. Wyse has become a brand as part of Dell and the team still works with Citrix and Microsoft although today it also has its own vWorkspace desktop virtualisation environment as well as relationships with the likes of VMware.

“The market started to build especially in the highly regulated spaces,” McNaught recalls. “We saw schools adopt it because they loved the idea of a stationary device that was much more robust than what was going on at the time where in California there was a 10:1 ratio between pupils and PCs.”

There were stark examples of how important rapid provisioning can be too, notably in the aftermath of 9/11 when NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s office received a letter containing anthrax. Wyse was able to set up a floor of terminals to re-accommodate staff at the ‘30 Rock’ skyscraper.

Today ‘thin is in’ and we might be on the verge of another boom.

“We’re going to make the largest introduction of mobile thin clients in Q1 2016,” McNaught says. Price points have never been lower with terminals starting at under $100 and vWorkspace full configurations coming in at under $350 per user, he says. Dell/Wyse might also benefit from the shift towards simpler IT operations.

“More thin clients were sold in 2014 than in any year prior. It’s a quiet storm and that’s kind of a good thing. Companies don’t want to be systems integrators or have anything get in the way.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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