If you’ve subscribed to this newsletter for a while, you know that I haven’t been enthused about the Linux-based Windows terminals I’ve seen. One reason is that the inconsistent user interface (UI) makes it hard to apply what you know about setting up one terminal to another model—or even to a later version of the same model. Recently, suck.com readers argued in letters to the editor about whether or not skins (changeable interfaces that overlay an application’s default UI) increase ease of use. Defending skins, one reader argued that flexibility might be a problem for people who are unfamiliar with computers and need predictability, but that people who are used to working with computers can deal with a changing UI and might like to change it to suit their moods.
Balderdash. Like most of you, I work on computers just about every day. The last thing I want to do is muck around with any UI changes that could make it hard to tell at a glance where my controls are. It's bad enough when I have to look for my controls at all--I certainly wouldn’t choose the hassle. You can like Windows or hate it, but you have to appreciate one advantage of Windows-based terminals (WBTs): the setup UI is consistent. If you can set up the basics of a Televideo WBT, you can set up the basics of an Addondics WBT—and vice versa. Consistency is a Good Thing.
But how important is the WBT brand? Some believe that a WBT is simply a device that runs a form of Windows locally. But to carry the brand, the device must follow a Microsoft specification that defines what a WBT is. Therefore, Netier’s original Windows NT-based Windows terminals were not WBTs, but the original CE-based devices from NCD were. Trouble is, although Microsoft has announced the next versions of the WBT standard, it has yet to finalize the Professional version. (It’s possible that Microsoft has been a bit distracted lately.) This delay complicates things for the OEMs who would like to make Windows-based Windows terminals. Some have tired of the follow-the-bouncing-specification game and have stopped playing. Wyse, for example, has released a Windows terminal based on NT Embedded, but the company isn't following the specification for Professional devices because it doesn’t yet exist in final form. Wyse plans to make an "official" WBT once it has a specification to work with, but the company figures that the unofficial device will satisfy the need for more powerful terminals that can run a mix of locally installed Win32 applications and terminal sessions. Because it's disregarding the standard, Wyse can’t call the new devices WBTs, but nothing prevents the company from starting with a Windows OS, choosing a feature set it finds useful, and calling the device something else—which is what Wyse did.
I don't believe that the lack of branding will be a problem. People like the consistent Windows UI--particularly when they don’t have to pay a premium for it. (You will pay a premium for advanced management features in some Windows terminals, but the cost of a Linux-based Windows terminal is about the same as that of a simple Windows-based Windows terminal. A cheaper license doesn't necessarily translate into a cheaper device.)
When Microsoft finally gets the specification out the door, OEMs will make WBTs that follow the guidelines. However, Microsoft shouldn’t expect to control the thin-client device market by controlling the WBT brand. It’s too late for that. We need a consistent UI to make it easy to set the things up, but we don’t need a brand name to tell us that the UI is consistent.