Ikea’s Thin Client Woes

Lots of people tout the benefits of web applications over old fashioned fat clients or desktop applications. Yes, I agree that it solves the problem of rolling out software upgrades and requires little or no installation effort because the user just needs a web browser. People do tend to ignore the disadvantages of thin clients however. With the advent of software as a service it might be worth looking at those disadvantages before jumping on the bandwagon.

I was in Ikea just the other day and got a taste of thin clients failing dramatically. Ikea sells kitchens and you can go to their web site and plan exactly how you want your new kitchen to look in three glorious dimensions. It is a really nice tool that even allows you to choose whether you want your cupboard handles aligned horizontally or vertically. It all works beautifully until, of course, the server goes down. At this point the Ikea branch (and many others I expect) are completely unable to help customers plan and, hopefully for Ikea, sell kitchens. Imagine what this must cost the company. Staff were informing customers that service should (hopefully) be restored the following day.

I suspect that there are many much more serious systems that would cost considerably more if they became unavailable at Ikea. If the accounting system went down I’m sure it would cause a lot of headaches for them.

While companies are able to save money with the use of thin (and web based) clients, let’s not forget that there are downsides too. As software moves off the terminals and onto central servers and eventually into the “Cloud”, we should start thinking about such problems and preparing for them. If I start my own company, I certainly don’t want to be denied access to essential services because some other company is having technical trouble. That could send a small company to an early grave.

It isn’t that thin clients are bad, it’s just that we’re going to start seeing these sorts of problems more and more if many businesses get their way. Apparently in the future we’ll all be running just a kernel that will give you an Internet connection and all your apps will be streamed to you on demand. A nice idea in theory, but prepare yourself for the server being down! 🙂

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