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Microsoft retrenches around fat clients

Posted by pbrittan on November 11, 2003 at 7:21 AM PST

Microsoft is leading a charge back to the desktop. Will the world follow?

Microsoft is placing its bets that fat clients represent the future of software, not browser-based thin clients. In fact, they are phasing out development of a stand-alone Web browser. Longhorn will have HTML viewing/browsing capability built right into the OS, and there will no longer be an Internet Explorer.

I’m not surprised by this. Web clients have never been strategic to Microsoft, which needs to ensure that the Windows desktop remains supremely relevant. The core idea behind HTML browser applications is that they can run equally well on any client-side platform, which thus makes the specific features of Windows unimportant. There is growing customer dissatisfaction with the ergonomics of HTML for enterprise applications, and a number of vendors are offering “rich client” alternatives. Microsoft is offering .NET Smart Clients as its rich client solution, which also happens to be a fat client architecture that runs only on Windows desktops.

That all makes a lot of sense from Microsoft’s point of view. The big question, however, is what will happen to the many Web applications that exist today and to technologies that are dependent on the browser. If Microsoft wants to encourage a Smart Client architecture, will DHTML be phased out?

"Microsoft wants enterprises to write browser applications that take advantage of Longhorn application programming interfaces (APIs), which means that they won't work on non-Longhorn browsers," [Michael] Silver, [an analyst at Gartner], wrote in a research report last week.

The other, related, question is whether large ASP businesses will follow Microsoft’s charge back to the desktop. Apparently, at least some will:

At Microsoft's developer conference, for example, showed how it has used the Avalon graphics technology and the WinFS file system in Longhorn to create an improved shopping site.

Amazon's chief technology officer, Allan Vermeulen, showed how a Web shopper can do a number of tasks that could not easily be done from within a browser, such as rapidly filtering search results for cameras and viewing a photo of a camera as a three-dimensional object. Information from the e-commerce site could also be easily shared with a person's calendar application.

Google also recently announced a desktop application version of its search service.

Microsoft’s competitors, IBM, Sun, Oracle, and others, have been rallying around the Web-based Portal as the primary means for enterprise application delivery. Microsoft’s moves call into some question the future of the standard Web portal, even as Microsoft has started pushing its own SharePoint portal software hard in the market.

Microsoft continues its strategy to cut off Java from end users.

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