Vivek Haldar

More on fat vs thin clients

Ex-Googler Amit Patel made an insightful comment on my post about fat and thin clients that I totally agree with, and so I’m just going to reproduce it here in full:

Some thoughts:

1 - Net connectivity does not necessarily mean “thin client”. I can use net connectivity for data and still do a lot of processing on the client.

2 - The server/client power ratio doesn’t matter unless I’m actually trying to solve those large problems.

3 - There are some problems that need large machines and there are also some problems that could fit on either side. We’re not trying to figure out whether web search is going to be running on the phone. The real question is where the small things run.

4 - I do use my phone and tablet when I don’t have net connectivity. They are not bricks (maybe this is different in Androidland). Most of the things I do aren’t big problems. Even some previously big problems that only fit on a big computer now fit on my phone (like maps).

5 - Bandwidth and storage keeps getting better. Latency and availability aren’t improving much. Bandwidth and storage makes the “sync all my data among all my devices” model work for a larger and larger subset of my data. My data is not growing as quickly as storage, so I can see all my data fitting on my phone within a decade.

For any given problem, do I ever want to give up low latency and high availability to have it run on the server instead of my client? Generally, not unless it’s a much better experience to compensate for the slowness and unavailability. For most everything I do (text editing, word processing, photo processing, web browsing, games, email, social networking), it’s hard to justify.

Unfortunately most of today’s client apps are based on the old model assuming no networking. You email files around if you want to share. I think we can do much better by using synchronization among multiple clients as a fundamental building block. Data and compute stay local but when you have connectivity you synchronize with other places the data is stored. Google Wave was a stab at this. OneNote too, I think. Git does this for programming. DropBox is built on this model but it handles only simple synchronization at the moment. They have the potential to build infrastructure for apps to synchronize in a more structured way (like Wave), but I don’t know if they’re planning to do this.