On my way out from USC I stopped at their innovation center to visit thin client startup company, ThinLinX. This is a startup company specializing in thin Linux client computers. John Nichols, CEO, showed me some prototypes. They are currently seeking financial backing for the next stage of development. He talked about some of the trials they have conducted in Australia and New Zealand.
The "Hot-e" computer runs Linux on an ARM processor, with a Debian linux environment for software developers. The computer cases will be made in China, but the circuit board will be made, and the units assembled, in Australia.
Currently there are two models: HL100 and HL200, both with 64 MB RAM, 8 MB Flash Memory,l USB 2.0 ports, Compact Flash slot Type I/II, SD/MMC socket and 10/100 Ethernet. The HL100 has not video output and intended for machine monitoring applications, web cams and the like. The HL200 adds a XVGA DB15 CRT plug for video output.
Planned for February 2008 are the HL101 and HL201, upgrades adding WiFi, Bluetooth and 256MB of flash memory.
The HL300 is planned for March 2008, with a AMD Geode LX 700 processor, up to 512MB RAM, and up to 2GB of flash. Most significantly, the Geode is an x86-compatible processor and is used in the One Laptop per Child computer and some other low power Linux computers. This will make it easier to run commonly used applications on the system.
The ThinLinX computers are true thin client computers, requiring data storage and processing of applications top be run elsewhere. This makes for a lower cost system, but at the cost of more complexity and risk of a single point of failure. Most of the perceived risk and complexity is illusory. Running a couple of dozen ThinLinX computers from a server is likely to be easier and more reliable than setting up conventional desktop PCs. However, the perception will be that this is harder.
ThinLinX are offering their low end models for SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) applications, where a small computer is needed to monitor and control some machinery. This need not be in a factory, it could be the solar hot water system in a home. Larger units can be used for thin client applications, replacing some desktop computers. ThinLinX also offer access to Microsoft Windows applications remotely, but I have my doubts about how useful this is.
One application John mentioned was to provide the processing nodes for a WiFi mesh network, for public safety applications. John had one of the HOT-E devices mounted in a watertight "Pelican" type case with a small LCD display, as a prototype for use by emergency workers in the field.
Thick Thin Computers Easier to Sell
"Thick" thin client computers, like the Zombu, would be much easier to introduce gradually to an organization and look less of a risk than the ThinLinx. With 4 GB of flash memory, the Zombu can have its operating system, office applications and a useful amount of user data storage on board. This makes the Zombu a self contained computer which can operate without the need of a remote server for much of the time. The ThinLinx system could be cheaper an easier to manage in the long term, but it would be more difficult to get started.
Thinner Thick Thin Client
John Nichols' problem is to work out what features to build into the thin client. Each extra feature might only add a few dollars, but for a low cost device every dollar matters. How many customers will use the WiFi, Bluetooth, Compact Flash slot, SD/MMC socket or Ethernet? Some customers will use some features, but how many are willing to pay for all?
My suggestion would be to produce a thinner version of the HL300, which could be thickened by the customer. This would have the x86 compatible processor of the HL300, but with fewer interfaces and less memory. The WiFi, Bluetooth, Compact Flash slot and SD/MMC socket would be omitted. There would be 512 of RAM standard. Only 8 MB of Flash Memory would be provided by default. Extra communications (WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G) and memory (Compact Flash, SD/MMC or simple USB sticks) would be provided via USB. A typical configuration for a Zombu type thick client system would have a 4 Gbyte USB flash device for the operating system and office applications.