The return of the dumb terminal

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia.

Starting in the late 1960’s a little understood corner of the United States government began developing a means of connecting geographically separated research labs and universities. These remote computers allowed researchers to more quickly share data between projects and allowed research to work on projects without being required to be in the same room, or even the same state. The more complex this network became, the more obvious it became that system administrators needed to connect to and control computers without being on the remote computer’s keyboard. This is what spurred on the development of the “dumb terminal.”

The dumb terminal is not a computer, but rather a keyboard and a monitor connected directly to a networking device which could connect to a computer across the room or across the country. Early terminals were single connection, hard wired units that provided extremely secure connections where later models could connect to a telephone line, through a modem, and call into any number of connected computers.

Running in parallel to this was the development of the personal computer. The personal computer contained it’s own processor, storage and could run without connecting to any outside resources, unless you wanted it to. Personal computers (PCs) became prevalent through the years, and became considerably smaller and more powerful. Many of us who carry around smartphones now carry around computers that are more powerful than the first PCs.

People who built their own computers often ended up with closets, garages or basements full of obsolete hardware which became hard to sell and harder to dispose of due to the lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals embedded in the electronics.

However, in 2009, Google introduced Chrome OS. This proprietary software ran on Google’s Chromebook computers. These computers were small, inexpensive and had limited storage and processing power. Why then would anyone want them? The power of the Chromebook was that it ran programs based on servers that had more capabilities than the device the user was using. This allowed a user to work on business documents, spreadsheets and presentations, which would otherwise bog down the limited resources of the Chromebook. Another way of looking at it, the Chromebook was the return of the dumb terminal. What’s old is new again!

Except, here in 2021, things do not seem all that much different. Before COVID-19 hit, personal computer sales were dropping. Even the sales of laptop computers were starting to slump (even though many of them were getting just as powerful as the giant desktop computers which were popular with people who needed large amounts of computer power).

While Chrome OS, by some estimates, is now more widely used than Mac OS (the operating system which runs Apple Macintosh computers), this may be partially due to the increased usage of Chromebook by students learning remotely. More people than ever are using remote resources without realizing it. Anyone who uses Google software, Apple or Microsoft accounts are accessing remote services and storing at least some of their data on remote computers.

The beefy, bulky, desktop powerhouse is becoming a rarity even among hardcore gamers, video producers, animators and computer programmers working on machine learning. For many users, these expensive and intrusive boxes are being replaced by paid subscriptions to cloud-based services, that is remote server, services which do all the heavy lifting for the user so they do not need the old bulky computer that held up one corner of their desk.

These cloud-based services mean that you need to buy and maintain less hardware, and can work anywhere on complex computational problems from wherever you have a good internet connection.

While the consumer may spend as much money on remote services, they could gain the mobility and flexibility of not being required to maintain and upgrade their own computers. This can even work out well for companies who allow for employees to work at home. Send them a cheap, easily replaceable Windows PC on a stick they can plug into the back of a television and the computer could be set up to securely connect to the company network.

The individual or employee connects remotely to a service which maintains the majority of the hardware which does the bulk of the computation. This more centralized collection of servers can be more easily maintained and upgraded as new technologies become available.

Is this shift to remote computing a problem? Well, as long as everyone has a decent Internet connection, everything should work fine. If you are concerned about security for your personal information or your work files, there are things which you can do to protect those. But even the most secure computer will always be at some risk if it connects to the outside world. The best defense against your data, and your work data, is encryption. For the computer user who mainly wants to keep in touch with far away friends and family, they may never need more than their smartphone, tablet or computer-on-a-stick. Many jobs do not need an expensive computer and could work quite well with a low-power computer which connects to company servers that provide access to more resource-heavy services such as customer databases. These low-power computers are less expensive, smaller and less resource intensive to build.

Computer chip manufacturers, graphics processor manufacturers and other specialized hardware makers need not take a hit either. With increasing demands from server farms that run remote services, manufacturers can sell in bulk and spend less on advertising to the general public, create less wasted packaging, and have more money going into research or better wages for their employees.

The way we use computers changes even as the computer changes the world we live in. The cloud is not a new way of doing things but it has been repackaged for a new age.