Sometimes You Can Be Too Thin

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Todays computer user interface technology offers a wealth of options for accessing and working with information.

As Internet and Web technologies proliferated, many software vendors rushed to develop “thin client” applications, using the same tools for developing Web pages.

Lets define some terms. A client is a computer or workstation that is typically connected to a network. Generally, a thin client workstation doesnt contain application software but can access the software from a server or from the Internet in order to make use of it. Thus, thin clients are often referred to as browser-based, Web clients or lean clients.

After the early rush of software companies to attempt to move every process to thin client architecture, with plenty of misses along the way, some independent software vendors now have adopted a balanced approach with thin and rich client computing. You have to use technologies where they make the most sense. Thin clients may seem “cooler,” but “cool” doesnt drive revenue or profit for your business–highly usable and functional software does.

In contrast to Windows-based (or rich) clients, thin clients are not installed on a local workstation but instead run from a Web server. This method of deployment allows for nearly ubiquitous access of the application. Any machine with the right version of the Web browser and an Internet connection can become an employees workstation.

Thin client configurations also have a lower administration cost. Since the software actually is not installed on the local workstations, all of the maintenance is performed on the Web or application servers.

Despite the hype around thin client configurations, it isnt always good to be thin.

Rich clients afford end users powerful and flexible user interfaces. Rich clients take full advantage of the services of the operating system. They can leverage the printing capabilities of Windows and fully access system services such as security and storage, while they may also offer enhanced performance.

Rich clients have a much larger universe of functionality. In a Web services transaction, they connect to a computer across the Internet and provide users with very powerful interfaces and complete pictures of their information. Complex business processing tasks such as data manipulation and analysis are the sole province of rich clients.

Thin clients, on the other hand, are well suited to certain kinds of tasks and represent a new level of automation for agencies and carriers. Thin clients, because they use the familiar navigation concepts (like the next and back buttons and hot links), require little training for new users. This makes them a powerful way to push information and tools to consumers. For example, think of online banking. The ability of consumers to move money between accounts, schedule payments and review checks online has revolutionized customer service by banks.

This same kind of customer service is possible in our industry. We can provide insureds with the ability to answer many of their own policy questions and handle basic tasks such as printing auto ID cards or requesting a change of coverage. Using a Web services translator, todays technology can access carrier systems and provide information on a customers direct bill balance or claim. It can be used by a business to generate certificates of insurance, which can be printed, faxed or e-mailed. As a thin client application, such technology is easy to instantly deploy to all of an agencys customers.

Thin client applications will continue to grow as businesses and independent software vendors discover new ways to harness the Web to meet users needs. Over time, as bandwidth becomes cheaper and more abundant and as the development tools evolve, we will see a melding of rich clients and thin clients.

Its important to note that this will be an evolution–thin client tools are not ready today to supplant rich clients. We can see the beginnings of these changes in todays Windows applications, many of which demonstrate a borrowing of user interface metaphors between thin and rich clients.

This joining of thin and rich client technologies will extend beyond the user interface to the underlying architecture with a goal of delivering robust, fully functional clients that are easier to deploy and maintain.

Soon, a hybrid client will emerge that blends the best features of thin and rich clients. To accomplish this platform, independent software vendors will need to develop new tools and add-ons to the operating systems and Web browsers to support the hybrid client.

is executive vice president, technology, of University Park, Ill.-based Applied Systems Inc., an insurance industry technology provider. He can be reached via e-mail at jhigginson@appliedsystems.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, August 18, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.