Microsoft’s posturing over AOL’s “obligation” to open up its proprietary instant messaging protocol was pretty funny; Micron Electronics’ plan to buy Micron Internet Services from their mutual parent Micron Technology is just plain bizarre. But Oracle’s Larry Ellison, topping the rest of the industry, wins in the definitions category by describing his company’s planned $150 (plus monitor) diskless Linux desktop system as a “network computer”.

This is a system that has 64MB of RAM and runs a Unix variant and applications that are installed locally from a CD-ROM. That makes it a network computer? So, I guess, is the iMac. It’s OK. Ellison coined the term “network computer.” He can define it as he pleases.

Speaking of newly coined buzzwords, my recent columns on fat network architectures generated a lot of e-mail and discussion in’s forums.

Many respondents disagreed with my proposition that “thin client” has lost all meaning. Several explained what the term “really” means. Regrettably, no two proposed the same definition …

Other exchanges centered on my conclusion that the one thing thin client architectures all share is their need for a fatter network (hence the name). Either missing my inclusion of servers as part of the network or disagreeing with it, they pointed to products such as Citrix and Virtual Network Computing (VNC) that make efficient use of bandwidth. Since fat network is my term, though, I get to define it, and servers are in.

VNC’s advocates in particular were emphatic about the wonders of their thin-client solution, and challenged me to “prove” my assertion that thinner clients require fatter networks. (Answer: See my definition, above.) If the number of capitalized sentences and exclamation points in its proponents’ postings is a gauge, VNC is worth exploring. The number of capitalized sentences and exclamation points also demonstrates the need for a more businesslike approach to product advocacy if the open source movement is to succeed.

In the end, when the flames had died and the smoke finally cleared, only a few points seemed certain regarding thin-client/fat-network computing:

1. Misuse of the term “thin client” has rendered it worthless. It now means “non-Windows desktops.”

2. The only benefits common to all fat network computing solutions are that they’re easier to deploy, stabilize and administer (please, not “administrate”) than applications installed on Windows desktops. Note to all who wrote: They aren’t more stable, only easier to make stable.

3. Browser-based computing benefits end-users – it allows IS to deploy applications that otherwise would be impractical to create at all.

4. The lonely defenders of HTML-only interfaces acknowledged their limitations, instead asserting that end-users need nothing more. Anyone who has filled out an on-screen purchase order knows better, though – HTML lacks basic facilities, like scrolling regions. To make browser-based applications competitive with modern GUIs you need combinations of JavaScript, Java applets and servlets, ASP, Perl … Techniques for maintaining applications built on all this stuff don’t exist.

5. NCs let you build rich user interfaces at the cost of locking down the desktop – sometimes appropriate, sometimes not – but at the cost of incompatible file formats for office applications. Lotus’ latest version of eSuite may change that, though, opening the door for a mixed PC/NC architecture.

Finally, at least within my unscientific sample, advocacy of thin clients and disdain for end-users correlate strongly. In the “real world,” I’m told, the only software end-users install is games and screen savers; IS knows what end-users need to succeed better than the end-users themselves; and what matters is what’s good for the company, not what helps individual employees do their jobs. Then in the next sentence or posting, I hear that IS lacks the resources to take care of every need in the company.

Put it all together and it comes down to the same, tired formula: We won’t do it for you and we won’t let you do it for yourself because we can’t trust you with the tools.

In IS, I guess, we need to update the old proverb thusly: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll wreck everything.”