Computing vendors have had marginal success over the years with variations of this "thin client" concept. Now IBM Corp. is betting that with some tweaks, the technology can become a big hit, challenging the traditional approach pushed by Microsoft Corp.
IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc., which also offers a server-based computing system, the Java Desktop, insist their efforts aren't a direct stab at Microsoft's huge--and hugely profitable--presence on corporate desktop computers.
Even so, the rivals say they hope to win over corporate technology managers who are tired of the cost and security headaches inherent in having hundreds of PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system.
In a server-centric computing system, software updates can be pumped to every machine at once, and individual computers can be shielded from viruses and attacks.
"That's one of the biggest things (information technology) faces today: keeping all of the software on the PC up to date," said Bruce Elgort, manager of information services for Sharp Corp.'s U.S. microelectronics division. "It's a nightmare."
He said he's "50-50" on whether to have his organization adopt IBM's new server-based desktop system, known as Workplace 2. Even so, he said, "I'm pretty keen on what they're trying to do."
IBM's original Workplace software, launched last year, offered messaging and collaboration features. Workplace 2 is a new beast because it is managed by remote servers. Now in pilot testing by 120 IBM customers, Workplace 2 is to be officially released by the end of July.
IBM expects it to especially appeal to companies with lots of mobile workers, or employees who use computers only for specific tasks--people like bank tellers, call-center operators and factory-floor managers.
The program gives users a dashboard-like view of several applications, notably E-mail, instant messaging and a calendar, along with documents created by the users or their colleagues. In an important step, IBM released software tools this month to let outside developers create programs that work with Workplace 2.
Workplace 2 runs on Windows or Linux computers, and its dashboard can incorporate the big three applications in Microsoft's Office software package--Word, PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets.
But if a user doesn't want to buy Microsoft Office software, Workplace draws on open-source alternatives that roughly simulate the big three. That means a Workplace user who doesn't have Word but gets E-mailed a Word document could open the file, change it and send it back to the source--who would then be able to work on it in Word just the same.
Workplace is accessed over a Web browser, so users can be anywhere, even on a handheld computer or an Internet-connected cell phone. A Macintosh version is due this fall.
Also, unlike earlier incarnations of thin-client computing, users don't have to maintain a constant connection to the network. E-mails and other work can be performed off-line and synched up with central servers later.
One potential flaw, however, is that Workplace for now lacks a unified search program that lets users hunt for data across multiple applications. Meanwhile, Microsoft and third-party developers are making that kind of function a high priority.
IBM won't make claims about how much money Workplace users can save by dumping Microsoft Office, which has a staggering 400 million users worldwide.
But it's safe to say Workplace is a big bet.
IBM's $14 billion software division, the world's No. 2 software supplier, not only has to win over Microsoft customers but keep its own users of its Lotus Notes and Domino e-mail programs, both of which can be accessed in Workplace. Notes alone has 110 million users.
Also, if Workplace is a success, it could help IBM sell servers, back-end technology services and PCs that run Linux, now a relatively tiny market.
Sun is in more desperate straits, having seen business plummet since the dot-com bust. Sun contends big companies can save at least 25% on long-term operating costs by abandoning Windows for Sun's server-managed Java Desktop System, which runs on Linux.
That message inspired Ireland's largest bank, Allied Irish, to switch 7,500 of its PCs to the Java Desktop, though Sun won't say how many other customers it has picked up since the software's launch in December. Peder Ulander, Sun's marketing director for desktop solutions, said it has done "better than I think we had originally anticipated."
For its part, Microsoft claims not to be threatened by IBM, Sun or any of the dozens of alternatives to Office.
Dan Leach, product manager for Microsoft's information worker software--which brought in $10.8 billion of Microsoft's $36.8 billion in revenue over the past year--said Windows users have little reason to leave programs they've relied on for a long time. For example, he said, while Workplace promises a centralized presentation of collaborative documents, so does Microsoft's existing SharePoint server software.
"What IBM is suggesting is that customers should use Workplace, but to do what? To do many of the things our customers are already doing," Leach said. "Our customers are not interested in giving up the power of their PCs."
Amy Wohl, who runs the Wohl Associates tech consulting firm, said it will take a few years to gauge the success of programs like Workplace.
Switching isn't easy for many companies, especially those with internal programs written to work with Office.
"If you're looking for Office to disappear, that's not likely," Wohl said. "If you're looking for IBM to have a fairly substantial number of customers, large customers, I think that's reasonable. ... It's going to be really interesting to see."